We ranked the top 50 best rappers according to flow, only.
Little did you know, it's a big day for us. After months of meeting, listening, discussing and debating, we're excited to present to you HNHH's Top 50 Best Rapper Flows of All Time.
We'll keep the pre-amble brief, since you have plenty to read below. We attempted to rank the rappers with the most innovative, adept, genre-pushing, evolving, malleable, versatile flows of all time. These are the rappers whose flows have influenced colleagues and/or generations to come, flows that have gone on to be copied and watered down, flows that are so unique that they simply cannot be copied, flows that are just so damn smooth you can't help but enjoy the verse.
This was a group editorial effort, with contributions coming from:
50. VINCE STAPLES
Earl Gibson III/Getty Images
Vince Staples might be claiming the 50th and final place on our list but that is by no means a diss to his prowess on the mic. Hailing from Long Beach, California, Staples embraces everything that makes West Coast hip-hop so great, except he adds his own unique twist. On his album Summertime ‘06, Staples raps over distorted, abrasive beats while bringing a mix of subdued and high energy flows to the table. Combined with his recognizable cadence, Staples always comes through with a truly innovative flow that will have you rapping along with him to every song.
On albums like Big Fish Theory and FM, Staples actively challenged himself, and brought even more experimentation and raps with a youthful exuberance that is both refreshing and catchy. It’s almost impossible to not bob your head along to his tracks and vibe to every single syllable coming from his mouth. It’s clear that Staples is in a class of his own amongst his peers and still has plenty of room for growth as he progresses throughout his career.
LISTEN: Big Fish
- Alex C
Smino has so many places left to go, but he has already proven that he’ll never run out of ideas to fuel him on his journey. There’s a playfulness to his lyrics that is equally reflected in how he conveys them. He toys with inflection, speed, and enunciation like any phrase is the most submissive form of putty. His disregard for the conventions of the English language is well-noted and he earns praise for his insistence that all words be as dexterous as his vocal performances. In today’s age of the melodic rapper, fawning over an artist who is capable of alternating between rapping AND singing could incite eye-rolling. But Smino does it with a proficiency that blurs the line between the two, so you never know where you stand. He keeps redesigning the blueprint.
LISTEN: Father Son Holy Smoke
48. BIG SEAN
Of all the “new-school” rappers, Detroit icon Big Sean is one of the cats with the sickest flow. It feels like anything he spits comes smoothly off his tongue and while he used to earn criticism for jumping off-beat at times, the last few years have shown the Don get much more consistent in his rhyming patterns. These days, every song he drops is worth a listen and you already know he’ll be twisting his words in an original fashion.
The way Sean places emphasis on certain words speaks to his creativity and openness to explore flows that have not been claimed before. Sure, he may not be as impactful as an Andre 3000 or a Lil Wayne but Big Sean regularly comes through with what can only be referred to as his “trademark” flow, and is generally known for popularizing the Hashtag Flow. For evidence, just check out “All Your Fault” with Kanye West. The second verse is representative of what Sean is capable of.
- Alex Z
47. DENZEL CURRY
When it comes to the next generation of rappers hailing from Florida, Denzel Curry should always be the first rapper that comes to mind. In a short time, Curry has been able to amass an impressive discography highlighted by albums such as TA13OO and Zuu. Throughout these projects, Curry has flexed a bevy of flows including his shouty, high-energy approach to hip-hop on the meme-favorite “Ultimate.” To think of Curry as the “Ultimate” guy would be a complete underestimation of his talent level and range.
Curry has proven himself to be able to sing-rap with the best of them while also coming through with buttery smooth flows that will get a crowd going wild at any festival the kids are going to these days. Simply put, Curry is carrying all of Florida on his shoulders right now and he’s doing a damn fine job. Curry’s flow is both unique and highly-recognizable to its core. All things that are necessary to end up on a list like this.
- Alex C
Valee’s dulcet tones are like a warm blanket on a dark, cold winter night. His cadence is like a deflated balloon-- there’s an emptiness to it, a shapeless form of what it once was. He has a way of enveloping eerie beats, his preference for minimalistic trap sounds clear. The Chicago rapper was already influencing new and elder rappers alike with his whispery, and at times brisk and brief flow, but his break-out project, GOOD Job, You Found Me, cemented it even further. While he often goes uncredited for this new wave of flows, he’s deserving of a spot on this list for the influence and ingenuity he’s brought to our ears.
If this were a list of the fifty best rapper deliveries of all time, Bay Area legend E-40 would certainly fit in strongly. Because we’re looking at flows, Forty may not be as high as some would imagine but, regardless of his placement, his influence and cadence basically go unmatched. In a world where so many people can potentially have the “it” factor to become a star, E-40 has something that you just can’t coach: a flow as smooth as filtered water.
Forty generally spits in a quick and efficient manner and, for some rappers, enunciation would become an issue. By hook or by crook, the Vallejo icon always manages to make his audience understand his complete message while delivering it in a unique fashion. Alongside Suga Free, E-40 is often referred to as the original source of the offbeat rapping style that we hear people such as G Herbo and Blueface utilizing these days. The thirty-year veteran will get his words out by any means necessary. If it means he needs to be a little unconventional, he’ll happily get clever.
LISTEN: Quarterbackin’ (feat. Clipse)
- Alex Z
The last twelve months have been incredibly fulfilling for California rapper Tyga. The sheer fact that his name remains in destructive headlines about his relationship status and personal life prevents many from viewing the 29-year-old as one of the dopest vocalists in rap right now but, upon taking a step back, you’ll appreciate T-Raw for what he is. The flow specialist caters to a specific party-oriented audience but even rapping primarily about ass and cash isn’t enough to disguise his true talent: the dexterity to craft a memorable punchline and the peacock-like swagger that allows him to sound comfortable with hooks, verses, and bridges of any kinds.
At one point in his career, Tyga may have been referred to as a “corny” rapper and, as much as you may hate to admit it, the man remains pretty underrated. He still has some work to do to rebuild his reputation but, right now, the Cash Money role player is in the midst of evolving into the flow connoisseur he is today. Being one of the most consistent rappers in the country, a number of examples could be used to point to Tyga’s flow proficiency but we’ve included a sleeper hit featuring none other than a fellow expert, “Hookah” with Young Thug, mainly for the second verse.
LISTEN: Hookah (feat. Young Thug)
- Alex Z
43. DANNY BROWN
Danny Brown is the most madcap emcee of the modern-day. There appears to be a stream of centrifugal energy shooting from his core, but he’s always capable of focusing it into flows that maintain their precision. Not many in the history of hip hop have challenged themselves with as esoteric of a beat selection as Danny. His performances are most riveting when he isn’t as much fighting to ride the beat as he is mimicking the contortions of the sounds that surround him. You sense it in the way he enunciates words like they take on physical form and require all the muscles of the mouth to spew out.
He has emphasized several times that his latest album, uknowhatimsayin¿, is strictly concerned with raps, as in bars. After the dizzying circus of Atrocity Exhibition, Danny - under the guidance of executive producer, Q-Tip - wanted to strap himself down and construct controlled rhyme schemes and incisive narratives. The truth is, regardless of the pitch of Danny’s voice or the level of chaos in his production, his delivery has always been sharp and deliberate.
LISTEN: Side A (Old)
- Noah C
Curren$y is one of the early rappers to capitalize on, whether inadvertently or with measure, the hip-hop blog era-- and one of those few early rappers who’s also managed to maintain relevance since that era died down and made way for the streaming era. The rapper developed a cult-like following thanks to his smoke-approving raps, and even during his brief stint with Lil Wayne’s Young Money clan, he never strayed too far from the laid-back, conversational-style flow that he continues to use to this day.
While “Where Da Cash At” may not be a topic we’ll find Spitta rapping about much these days, the song proves his adeptness at flow. His vocals, often sounding like he’s just getting over a head cold, are grounded against any beat-- you won’t necessarily find Spitta squeaking and squealing and stretching his flow like a Young Thug-- instead you’ll find him lazily, yet purposefully, matching the pace of his instrumental. He’s as smooth as the best of them, as is evidenced clearly on fan-favorite “Michael Knight.”
LISTEN: Airborne Aquarium
In a recent HOT 97 interview, Wale shared an anecdote about him being asked to list the top five rappers of his era and accidentally omitting Drake. “You almost forget because Drake is like Lebron,” he said, imagining the likelihood of King James being subjected to a similar injustice. There’s something about Drake’s presence that is so ubiquitous and his greatness that is so implicit that he can easily slide under the radar. But it’s blasphemous to not give the man his flowers.
Drake has been known to appropriate the flows of fellow rappers, but it can’t be claimed that he’s never remolded them to possess a tinge of his own sound. On “Worst Behaviour,” he mimics Mase’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems” verse, but once he’s done borrowing some bars, he goes off on his own tangent. To solely focus on the times Drake was biting is also to overlook the melodic flows he had a hand in popularizing. If you look at “The Motion,” Drake is seen striking his signature balance between confident rapping and plaintive whining. While whining could seem like something you don’t want in your rap song, or any song for that matter, Drake is exempt from these expectations. Somehow, he sounds really good and it needn’t be contemplated or argued why that is.
LISTEN: The Motion
- Noah C
Growing up just outside of Atlanta, the youngest member of the Migos has managed to further the culture in his beloved ATL by hundreds of steps. Although the triplet flow cannot be attributed solely to the Migos, the trio was largely alone in modernizing the style, transporting it to a popular subgenre of rap that they contributed wildly to: Trap music. Quavo’s voice drew listeners in, Offset’s total package kept us all guessing and Takeoff’s flows and lyricism ensured that we were intrigued enough to stick with them on their road to greatness.
Rising after the unimaginable success of “Versace,” Takeoff’s potential was always clear. The fact that he remains the most underrated member of the group despite his casual swagger-filled flows should be criminal but perhaps that’s the reason why we gravitate toward the 25-year-old. If ever you’re unsure of why Takeoff belongs on a list of the best rapper flows of all time, simply revisit Culture hit “Slippery” with Gucci Mane. Ending off the track with an unfair amount of confidence, Takeoff slides through his entire verse with utmost certainty, assuring the listener that he knows exactly what he’s doing on the microphone.
- Alex Z
39. NICKI MINAJ
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
There’s a reason Nicki Minaj was one of the most sought-after features in music throughout this decade. She can find a pocket in practically any song you throw her way. Before her reign truly began, Mixtape Nicki foreshadowed it. On “Itty Bitty Piggy” off 2009’s Beam Me Up Scotty, Nicki carved out intricate routes that one wouldn’t even think possible in a beat that simply consisted of claps and ‘yup’’s. Aside from her being able to detail her superiority with a levelheaded swagger, she shifted in and out of personas as if it were no masterful maneuver.
Her voice was shown to have an elasticity that gave her room to play with her colorful creativity. She drags out “Excuuuse me, honey” like a high-society snob before snapping back to herself when asserting “but nobody’s in my lane.” She pulls off the same trick when imitating the bitches who would later be repeatedly referred to as her sons. “But mommy I’m cooold,” she whines, but then reverts to an apathetic tone. Nicki has always been able to wear multiple hats. This versatility shines through in her verses and ensures they stick with you.
LISTEN:Itty Bitty Piggy
38. DJ QUIK
It’s almost unfair. How can a man so nice on the beats be equally matched with the flow? For DJ Quik, demolishing his own production has become second nature. It’s almost as if he becomes one with his creations, finding the perfect pockets as he bounces with boundless energy. From his early days “Pitchin’ N On Parties” to his mid-career days riding the “Black Mercedes,” Quik’s groove is among the game’s most underrated - and that’s a fact. Songs like “Sex Crymee,” “Flow For Sale” reveal a ridiculous grasp of technical prowess, one that may legitimately earn him the position of most underrated in the game. Seriously speaking, why is DJ Quik not included in more Top 50 round-ups? A titan in the West Coast canon of great emcees, it’s time to start recognizing Quik’s prowess behind the mic, especially when he’s given us so much evidence to sift through.
LISTEN: Trouble ft AMG
- Mitch Findlay
Somebody had to hold it down for the new generation, and who better than Dreamville’s J.I.D? Between The Never Story, DiCaprio 2, and his work on Revenge Of The Dreamers 3, the Atlanta rapper has flexed his technical prowess on several occasions. Between kicking up the pace on songs like “Hasta Luego” or laying vocals at a playfully lackadaisical pace on “Girls, Girls, Girls,” J.I.D’s ear for beat cartography has him exploring all matter of pockets.
On “Slick Talk,” J.I.D. rides the beat with the confidence of an elite technician, a likely symptom of his appreciation for deep cuts and battle rap. On “Lauder” and “Just Da Other Day,” he gets slightly more frenetic yet no less poised, spitting alliterative lines without missing a step. Stringing together bars and easing into new rhyme schemes on a pre-sentence basis, J.I.D. has proven himself to be a trustworthy guide over any instrumental, one who has emerged as a leader-by-example for anyone lucky enough to watch him work.
LISTEN: Slick Talk
- Mitch Findlay
36. 50 CENT
While fortune favors the flashy, at least in the greater flow discourse, certain qualities should not go uncelebrated. Though 50 Cent seldom pushes his pace to strenuous speeds, his melodic touch remains unparalleled. His early material like “Rotten Apple,” “Corner Bodega” and “U Not Like Me” were pinnacle New York gangsta rap, his hunger evident with every punchline. Some may struggle to disassociate Fif from his modern-day trollish persona, but they play themselves; the man’s musical catalog is elite, his flow as effortless as they come. Fif has charted out new courses time and again, reading a beat like an astute judge of character reads a room. Whether he’s implementing singsong qualities into his verses or letting fly a verbal barrage, few have showcased the convincing versatility of 50 Cent.
LISTEN: High All The Time
- Mitch Findlay
35. MISSY ELLIOTT
Missy is impossibly smooth. Her whole image was founded on this demeanor, but it obviously extends beyond the way she carries herself. The fact that the majority of her songs were produced by either herself or Timbaland (often the two of them together) ensured that every beat was tailored to her style. She comfortably slipped into the homes they built and left the door open for all to enter. When she raps, she sounds like she’s sprawled across a velvety chaise lounge by the fireplace, as we sit on the carpet and stare up at her in awe.
I could’ve selected a deep cut to exhibit Missy’s expertise in flow, but why reach that far when “Gossip Folks” is right in front of our noses? It may not reflect the side of Missy that I just described above, but it proves that if she wishes to dig in her bag, she can pull out all kinds of captivating things. On this 2002-defining smash, her jumping between flows is both as frenetic and swift as Alyson Stoner’s dancing in the music video.
LISTEN: Gossip Folks
34. SUGA FREE
Suga Free defined a certain sound in the West Coast that, to this day, has become transcendental. Some might refer to his flow as “off-beat” but that’s the furthest thing from the truth. There’s a conversational touch to his delivery. He can speed it up while cramming as many syllables as possible into a bar before effectively slowing it down and picking it back up without warning. There’s volatility to his flow which makes everything he touches unpredictable but it’s also the same thing that keeps it exciting. You never know which direction Suga Free will take you in but at the end, he’ll feed you a gem or two without you even realizing.
LISTEN: Why U Bullshittin?
33. J. COLE
Cole has always sat comfortably within the elite category, one of his generation’s definitive lyricists. His discography, complete with a stellar mixtape run, cemented him as a wise and gifted emcee. One who would never falter over an instrumental, more likely to turn heads with constructive wisdom than beguiling flows. Yet with 2018 came a renewed creative fire, one that found Cole embarking on a truly monumental slew of guest features. And rest assured, he bodied them every single time.
No more were his contributions more impressive than on “Off Deez,” which found him matching J.I.D’s own millennial energy. Dexterous when he needs to be, patient during times of solace, Dreamville’s big Capo has proven himself time and time again. As he said on 21 Savage’s “A Lot,” people don't even like rapping with him anymore. If you see a Cole feature, you can bet he’s walking away with the standout verse.
LISTEN: J.I.D - Off Deez ft J. Cole
- Mitch Findlay
32. MF DOOM
There’s a combination of factors that makes MF DOOM such a magnetic emcee. You could point to his eccentric beats, whether produced by himself or sourced from others. You could talk about the way his gravelly vocals sound on top of these beats. Another element that is obviously deserving of praise is his lyricism. When one wonders who is the wordiest wordsmith in the whole wide world, DOOM comes crashing in.
Using big words and jamming them into a jumble isn’t in itself that impressive of a skill. The fact that DOOM manages to deliver these complex strings of sounds like an effortless exhale is though. His attention to timing allows him to do this. He can push out back-to-back bars without intermittent pauses, but knows when to pull back and for how long. This could be attributed to his profound respect for the instrumental. Even when he’s plowing through coarse terrains, he never compromises their grooves.
Twista is one of the fastest rappers in the game and, while there are some forces that arguably took chopper rap and expanded on the idea further than the Chicago legend did, the tongue-twisting style of rhyming he employs easily earns him a spot on this chart. Twista’s entire rap persona was built on the fact that his flow is unmatched. Formerly known as Tung Twista, the 45-year-old impresses on every single cut he lands on. Both he and Tech N9ne popularized the chopper-style, spitting on their collaboration record “Worldwide Choppers” that he’s “Like a helicopter when the words fly.”
Netting an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, Twista can rap at the insane speed of 11.2 syllables per second, which is seriously otherworldly. That alone is enough to get him on this list but the sheer fact that the average listener can still comprehend what he’s saying while spitting that quickly is truly what landed him here.
LISTEN: Tech N9ne - Worldwide Choppers
- Alex Z
30. SCHOOLBOY Q
ScHoolboy Q has such a fascinating texture to his voice that one might be convinced his music’s appeal predominantly relies on this feature. What’s really impressive though is how he leans into his snarl to make it sound like he’s densely trudging through a track, yet light enough to not be restricted to a linear path. His volume fluctuations are central to imbuing his flows with their dynamism.
He has a knack for converting his colorful character - which has been seen in every one of his interviews and social media posts - into his rap performances. On “Break The Bank,” you feel his tenacity when he barks, “Heart filled with octane, fire in my soul,” and his boredom when he drawls, “Tell Kendrick move from the throne, I came for it.” The fact that he has test-driven different breeds of beats on his LPs and has repeatedly come out unscathed is a testament to the inventiveness of his flows.
LISTEN: Break The Bank
29. GUCCI MANE
Paras Griffin/Getty Images
Everything about Gucci Mane’s early delivery and flow screamed “lethargic.” In recent years, the Atlanta legend has refined his style and can truly be considered one of the greatest — and definitely one of the most influential — rappers of all time. The way Guwop crafts his verses has always been interesting, extending certain syllables here and there, using his Southern drawl to his advantage. When he was starting out, the East Atlanta Santa was damn-near incomprehensible in his pronunciation, allowing his mere presence to do much of the talking for him. Now, he’s spitting clearly, concisely, and, most importantly, in an innovative fashion.
You can take a whole bunch of Gucci Mane songs to dissect the star’s flow. On “First Day Out Tha Feds,” the track he released in 2016 after getting out of prison, Wop’s lines jump between each other so smoothly, providing an enjoyable listen while also telling a story that needed to be communicated. All things considered, Gucci Mane definitely has one of the best flows of all time.
LISTEN: First Day Out Tha Feds
- Alex Z
28. METHOD MAN
There’s always been a star quality to Method Man even before he became a Hollywood icon. Consider that he was the only Wu-Tang member to have a solo track on Enter The 36 Chambers which, to this day, still stands as a memorable moment on their classic album. It's as if RZA understood that Method's boundless, yet notably controlled energy needed ample space to breathe. To this day, the track remains an essential chapter of the golden era.
His voice is gruff but he coats it in a flow that slides over any type of production. At the same time, he’s a master of cadence and uses internal rhyme schemes that bounce off of the drums on whatever he’s rapping over. On tracks like “M.E.T.H.O.D Man” and “Da Rockwilder," Meth puts the full scope of his talents on display. He uses vocal inflections to bring out a zaniness to his delivery but when he touches on tracks like “The What” with Biggie, he dials it back a bit while going toe to toe with the Brooklyn legend.
LISTEN: Method Man
27. FREDDIE GIBBS
Gangsta Gibbs deserves a spot among the elite when it comes down to the simple art of rapping. Lyrically, he’s in a league of his own but his breath control doesn’t get the due it deserves. Over the last decade and some change, since his foray into the rap game, his versatility has been a key to his success. That comes from his ability to change his flow up. Although it’s heavily rooted in midwest/Southern influences, he’s applied the skills from artists that came before him. Even then, he hasn’t been able to be boxed into any sort of generalized style. He can easily get on a track with Young Thug before turning around holding down his own among artists like Yasiin Bey and Black Thought.
But Gibbs's top-tier flow is not necessarily exclusive to his versatility, but also his delivery. The man’s breath control is so tight that even without a backing track, he can rap every single bar from his own song live without missing a breath. Although that should be the standard in rap, Gibbs's perfection of his own craft has made him a rapper’s rapper but also, one of the best to hold down a mic this decade.
LISTEN: Rob Me A N****
26. MAC MILLER
Even when people tried to relegate Mac to the frat rap category, there was a persisting sense that this wasn’t entirely accurate. There was too much confidence in his raps for them to fall into corniness. The accusations that he was pandering to drunken white dudes likely stemmed from the gleeful bounce of his earlier music… and the fact that he was a white dude who was often drunk. But frat rappers don’t tend to be diligent students of Big L.
Mac put bars before persona since he came in the game and the way he honed his craft throughout his career proved his dedication. While his last few projects showed Mac getting more musical, Faces was Mac prioritizing the lyrical. Many moments on that mixtape were steeped in a druggy haze, but “Diablo” is remarkably clearheaded. Each line is carried like a weighty bundle, but they’re all delicately dropped with the intention of an expert.
25. PIMP C
DJ Screw laid the groundwork for UGK. The lean-induced production became a staple of the South, and has been immortalized in hip-hop culture forever, in part thanks to Bun B and Pimp C. Pimp C had a flow of molasses -- his voice was deep and the texture was rich. He glided over muddy production with authority while ensuring his consonants popped with each breath. He had an immaculate cadence that many have tried to replicate but can never come close to Pimp himself.
Although taken from us too soon, his influence is undeniable. From pop superstars like Drake, who’ve paid homage and sampled the rapper throughout his career, to Houston’s new generation like Megan Thee Stallion and Maxo Kream who continue to carry the torch, Pimp C’s flow continues to live on.
LISTEN: UGK - Diamonds & Wood
24. BIZZY BONE
There is no debating that the entire Bone Thugs-N-Harmony collective has impeccable -- not to mention influential-- flow schemes. When they first exploded onto the scene in 1994, it became clear that the Midwestern spitters were true originators, weaving occult tapestries with vivid street tales. With his distinctive cadence, Bizzy Bone emerged as an immediate standout presence, arguably the fastest spitter of the bunch.
Despite boasting a near-permanent falsetto, Bizzy’s thuggish credentials are never diluted; his melodies complement his threatening nature like a music box in a horror flick. One need only look to heavy-hitting collaborations like the 2Pac-assisted “Thug Luv” to see the dangers of a Bizzy unleashed, at once frantic, unrestrained, and technically dazzling. While those who have dug deeper into his solo catalog can appreciate his versatility, few can deliver double-time like this Thuggish Ruggish innovator.
- Mitch Findlay
23. KRAYZIE BONE
Before sing-rap really became a thing, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony infused elements of soul, gospel and R&B with double-time rapping which, to this day, makes them one of the most unique groups in hip-hop history. Although it’s hard to dictate which one of the five members had the best flows, Krayzie Bone has consistently stood out from the pack. Although Krayzie Bone’s solo work has never outshined BTNH as a collective, between his guest appearances and contributions to the group’s work, he’s always had one of the most consistent flows on wax.
His verse on “Spit Your Game” off of Biggie’s posthumous Duets is a prime example of this. He perfectly weaves together melodies and speeds while strategically using breaks within his verses to reload on breath before laying out the next several bars. Bone Thugs’ flow is one of the most influential in the game but Krayzie Bone was the one who brought the flow to the group and subsequently influenced the generations to follow.
LISTEN: Heated Heavy
There isn’t any other rapper quite as loquacious and quite as full of that Southern charm (and twang) as much as T.I. The rapper, who currently enjoys a second career as a podcast host and social/cultural watchdog, burst onto the scene with his debut album, I’m Serious, in 2001. The rapper leaned into his accent, allowing his flow to follow suit— his accent meant that he would pronounce words with a certain wideness to them, elongating or stretching out his vowels; or else, shortening his words, dropping off the last letter or two.
Perhaps most notable about Tip’s flow is the fact that he makes it sound way too easy (and we might attribute that apparent ease to his accent). He finds the pocket of any beat like it’s second nature, from his heyday to recent releases like October’s “Sabotage.” Whatever you want to say about his current Instagram feed and commentary he espouses, it’s hard not to enjoy when T.I. is flowing.
LISTEN: That's All She Wrote
21. Project Pat
Three 6 Mafia has been one of the most influential groups of the 90s. Although he was never an actual member of Three 6, Project Pat did play a prominent role in defining the sound out of Memphis. That same sound has transcended generations, influencing everyone from the biggest artists in the world to new artists that are coming out today. The texture of Project Pat’s voice alone stuck to instrumentals like tree sap and it’s only gotten better with age. Take “Cheese and Dope” off of Mista Don’t Play: Everythangs Workin, he dips in and out of his syllables before stretching out the final one. When he reworked it with Young Dolph and Key Glock on “CheezNDope,” he still brings that hardcore energy with the ease of an elder statesmen.
Raymond Boyd/Getty Images
If this were a list counting down the best hip-hop artists of all-time, Pac would certainly be closer to the top, or better yet, within the top five. Don’t let the 20th place ranking fool you though, Pac has one of the best and most recognizable flows in hip-hop history. While some would argue that it’s Tupac’s voice that really makes his flow, it’s really his technical ability that makes him stand out amongst other rappers of his ilk. Pac can switch flows at any time as he rides the beat with tireless precision. Just look at songs like “All About You” or “How Do You Want It.” On these efforts, Pac starts his verses rapping one way and will completely switch up his cadence to fit the rhyme scheme he has set for himself. It’s an impressive talent that he’s able to pull off so seamlessly, you almost don’t notice it.
At any given time, Tupac can either give you fast, energetic flows or he can bring the song to a slower pace so he can really tell the story he wants to illustrate. His flow, mixed with his songwriting and approach to artistry is why he’s an undeniable legend whose impact will be felt forever. Listen to his projects now and you’ll hear a flow that would fit in perfectly with today’s music. Simply put, Pac’s flow is timeless and undeniable.
LISTEN: How Do You Want It
- Alex C
The game wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for Rakim. At a time in hip-hop where bars were still based on constructed flow patterns, Rakim threw away the rule book to innovate the game in his own way. Little did we know its impact. Rakim’s multi-syllabic rhyme schemes shifted hip-hop for the better. His ability to string together his words together with an effortless touch set a blueprint for future rappers. He switched up the entire structure of rhyming. As elaborate as it was, his breath control and ease on every bar created a timeless sound. Even as we enter 2020, roughly 30 years after Eric B and Rakim’s debut as a duo, Rakim’s timeless flow that transcended, evolved and embedded itself into hip-hop music as we know it today.
LISTEN: Juice (Know The Ledge)
While some rappers approach streetlife depictions from a bird’s eye view, Raekwon has the camera on a shoulder mount, shooting guerilla-style footage. With a style borne from life experience hitting the streets alongside Ghostface Killah, Rae earned his stripes in the Wu Dynasty by steadily ripping tracks in standout fashion. As dynamic as any member of the group, Rae’s blend of credibility, criminality, and abstract RZA-approved concepts made him the perfect weapon, the intellectual thug.
On “Iron Maiden,” Rae weaves ridiculous schemes rife with his lexicon of coded language. “Sit back jollyin, my team be gaming like Three-card Molly and drug Somalians pollying,” he raps, sliding effortless over Bobby Digital’s production. On Wu-Tang's "Hollow Bones," his laid-back delivery unfolds an entire televised crime-saga in one breathtaking verse. The sheer volume of references and brilliant imagery inside the typical Raekwon verse is nothing short of staggering, a master storyteller with swagger and underrated technical prowess.
LISTEN: Wu-Tang Clan - Hollow Bones
17. GHOSTFACE KILLAH
When topics of the greatest of all time are raised, a name that remains en eternal dark house pick is that of Tony Starks, better known as the Ghostface Killah. One of Wu-Tang Clan’s more battle-hardened lyricists, Ghost has made a habit of bodying production with his masterful blend of unconventional flow and abstract poetic lyricism. It’s not uncommon to hear him stammer, cram syllables, manipulate his cadence to force a slant rhyme. Language is just another toy for Tony; even his threatening rants have a beautiful flow to them. There’s nothing typical about Ghost’s approach to structure, perhaps best summarized by this line from Raekwon’s “Mean Streets”: Early, walk with me and strap with a vengeance / more or less Ghostface Killah'll stretch you out like mad words in a sentence!
LISTEN: Mighty Healthy
Future’s voice is malleable. The man has proven that time and time again. Contributing so much to his city and to hip-hop culture as a whole, Future Vandross simply hasn’t gotten his flowers while they were still pungent. In all honesty, the 36-year-old is one of the best to ever do it. For years, Future has been one of the most focused individuals in music. Not only is his work ethic unmatched, his consistency is ridiculous. During his mixtape run, each song was as good as the last; even in 2019, he’s still dropping off high-replay-value records.
Re-visiting a song like “Fuck Up Some Commas,” you’ll see that Future generally has no problem bending his vocals in ways that no other artist would be comfortable with. Specifically, in the third verse, he changes the entire structure of the song. The beat remains intact but the recording artist goes in for a ferocious section of stop-start bars, using his staccato in inventive ways. More recently, his So Much Fun collaboration with Young Thug, “Sup Mate,” has him getting playful with his delivery and flow, epitomizing what it means to be a “mumble rapper.” From the soothing “woo woos” to his unrecognizable drug-fuelled lyrics, the way Future chooses to break up his words and create a memorable track cannot be compared to anybody else.
LISTEN: Fuck Up Some Commas
- Alex Z
15. ROYCE DA 5'9"
Given everything he has delivered in his nearly twenty-year career, a case can be made for Royce’s inclusion amongst this list’s loftier positions. Few are able to outmatch Eminem on a track, and Royce has done so on numerous occasions: “Fast Lane,” “Psychopath Killer,” “Above The Law” spring to mind. The Bar Exam series proved he could body an eclectic variety of instrumentals, with recent “N My Zone” standing out as a shining exhibit. Not to mention his work in Slaughterhouse, keeping his fellow lyricists consistently on their toes as the quartet’s most well-rounded and musically inclined member.
What makes Royce so deadly is his ability to deliver punchlines in manners befitting of their forceful nature. The pockets he finds within an instrumental speak to an unrivaled ear; what he lacks in grace, he makes up for in sheer innovation. On “Boom,” he embodies golden era energy, a stylistic choice he’d go on to explore further on PRhyme. On “Shine,” he whips up a rhyming clinic, casually stringing together schemes in whirlwind fashion. From double-time to boom-bap, there are Layers to this shit.
- Mitch Findlay
14. BIG BOI
Be careful. A common narrative might have you veering into completely egregious territory. One in which a shockingly vast disparity between the skillsets of Andre 3000 and Big Boi exists. And while Andre 3000 has proven himself a genuine master of the English language, Daddy Fat Saxx has matched him time and time again. Never one to be outshone, Big Boi’s flow stands among his greatest tricks, the sauce and the seasoning alike.
Charismatic with a vernacular worthy of your favorite uncle, Big Boi can string together idioms like “cooler than a polar bear’s toenails, oh hell, there he go again” with pure finesse. A truly versatile emcee whether he’s sliding over Organized Noize production, Scott Storch throwback disco bops, or Phantogram’s synth-heavy approach, Big Boi has proven more than capable of matching wits with his rhyming partner.
LISTEN: Outkast - ATLiens
13. BUSTA RHYMES
The legendary Bus-A-Bus has two distinct flowing styles that must be mentioned. Doubtless, he’s become familiar with his insane mastery of double-time. Between songs like “Break Ya Neck,” “Look At Me Now,” and his Titianesque shut-down of Tech N9ne’s “Worldwide Choppers,” Busta has become the benchmark for lyrical speed. And yet some of his craziest flows arrived during his early work, pairing a raucous energy with a padded room bounce.
One need only look to “When Disaster Strikes,” where his closing “exotic pasta/Cucaracha” bars reveal the depth of his zany brilliance. The way he approaches a beat, adjusting his cadence to enhance his chosen flow, can and should be studied by aspiring emcees. From “Branded” to “Gimme Some More,” Busta has proven time and again that he’s among the game’s most uniquely gifted.
LISTEN: When Disaster Strikes
12. BIG L
Big L is another instance of a rapper meeting his fate much too young, and leaving an impact in his wake. As any burgeoning hip-hop head will discover, Big L is often classified among the greats-- although his name doesn’t necessarily seep into daily hip-hop conversations and debates as much as his competitors (looking at you, Biggie and Pac). Big L was shot and killed in February, 1999, a few years after the passing of Big. Where Big repped Brooklyn, Big L repped Harlem. The two clearly overlapped in terms of musical career and output, and each helped the genre evolve in different ways.
When it comes to flow, Big L loosened things up a bit. As production evolved, with newer techniques entering into the fold, the rapping that went on top of said production was also adapted. Because Big L wasn’t on this Earth for very long, his discography is limited. He released one album while alive, Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous, with his next album The Big Picture arriving posthumously. As his debut album title would indicate, Big L could often be found reporting on his surroundings and painting a vivid picture of what you might find there. He did it all with a certain bounce and ease to his words, which is part of the charisma to his flow (and equally, the bounce to his words was likely influenced by the boom-bap beats of the time, case-in-point “I Don’t Understand It”).
On “All Black” he raps:
“I be placin' snitches inside lakes and ditches / And if I catch AIDS, then I'ma start rapin' bitches / I'm all about makin' papes kid / I killed my mother with a shovel just like Norman Bates did / My old man in the past, stuck me up without a mask / Then his ass cold dashed with my cash fast / Fifty G's is what the creep stole / So the next day, knocked on his door, and shot his granny through the peephole / That's the type of shit I'm on, word is bond / Got it goin' on, from the break of dawns to the early morn' / You know my style, I'm wild, comin' straight out of Harlem, pal / It's Big L, the motherfucking problem child”
Problem, indeed. You can clearly see how his penchant for shock and macabre lyrics might have influenced someone like, say, Eminem. You can also see just how articulate he was with his flow, often incorporating multi-syllable rhymes and internal rhymes around his punchlines.
LISTEN: Devil's Son
11. BIG PUN
Big Pun would easily be in the top 10 on this list had he been given the chance to put a larger discography together. Regardless, in two albums, Pun was able to cement himself as a legend of the game who could rap circles around anyone who may challenge him. If you’re unfamiliar with Pun, go check out his debut album Capital Punishment and listen to it from front to back. Starting with the track “Beware,” you are bombarded with lyrical, fast, and punchy flows that will have you disoriented and questioning where you are.
The way Pun is able to fit various words into a short time frame without sounding like he’s rushing the beat is simply masterful. You can’t help but admire the way he floats on beats with a precision that can hardly be obtained by even the most seasoned MCs. When Pun isn’t rapping fast, he’s able to give you subdued flows that match the vibe he’s trying to create through his storytelling. Pun set the blueprint for many of the MCs we have today. Ask any technical rapper who their inspiration is and he'll most certainly be on their list. In short, Pun is as hip-hop as it gets and as soon as you dive into his music, you’ll quickly realize why his flow is elite.
- Alex C
10. KENDRICK LAMAR
Prince Williams/Wireimage/Getty Images
Kendrick Lamar appears to be the last of a dying breed. Kendrick is a once-in-a-generation rapper that arrived after the proliferation of trap music. In an era where lyricism hasn’t been championed in a mainstream light the way it used to be, Kendrick brought that aspect of hip-hop to the game in a way that was both complex but digestible to the masses. He’s taken elements from Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Eminem, and Nas to form his unique style but his flow is the vehicle for his brilliance to be showcased. His slower flows emphasize his strong penmanship and resonate like generational tales, such as on “How Much A Dollar Cost.” Earlier cuts like “Rigamortis” and “Look Out For Detox,” though, prove just how gifted he is in his delivery. He’ll raise the intensity he weaves in and out of a double-time flow.
Kendrick’s influence might not be immediately identifiable among new rappers but one thing about Kenny is that mastering the art of his delivery has made him one of the most versatile rappers in the game. As easily as he could stand on his own with OGs like Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, Nas, and more, his foray into pop with his remix of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Up,” and collaborations with artists like Fredo Santana, Gunplay, YG Hootie and more have proven that he can easily adapt with other musical climates without having to compromise his delivery to suit the song. But perhaps the best example of how potent his flow is was shown on his appearance on The Game’s “The City.” He closed out the track with a stand-out on the project as he not only handled the hook with grace but also his a capella verse at the end. Even though the beat cuts, Kendrick approaches each bar with burst-fire while strategically using brief moments of breath to reload the next clip.
9. YOUNG THUG
What can we say about Jeffery Lamar Williams? The leader of YSL Records is driven, different, daring and, most importantly for the purpose of this write-up, vocally dextrous. If Future can bend his voice in creative manners then Young Thug can take the vibrations leaving his throat, flex them into millions of different pieces, and then lay them down on a verse. There are times where Thug has spit the craziest lyrics in the most outrageous fashion while still managing to make it sound sonically pleasing. One thing that you can’t deny about this man is that he’s fearless. We’re talking about the same dude who rocked a dress on his album cover at the end of the day.
Everybody that’s coming up out of Atlanta right now wants to sound like Young Thug. There is an argument that can be made that Jeffery is the most influential artist to have broken out in the last half-decade. Stars like Gunna, Lil Keed, Lil Baby, Lil Gotit, and many others have been compared to the Slime General. Thug embraces it though. He’s taken a number of burgeoning talents under his wing, molding them into miniature versions of himself and allowing them to mimic his rise to fame. Of course, all of the aforementioned artists have their own signature styles but it would be silly to not point out the Thug similarities.
Young Thug is one of the youngest artists in our Top Ten and, with such a high ceiling, he might end up creeping forward a few spots before it’s all said and done. That much is possible because, with each new release, he seems to surprise us. Before “Harambe” was released, how long had it been since you heard a mainstream rapper use their voice in such a particular fashion? He recycled the delivery and flow on So Much Fun’s “Cartier Gucci Scarf” and since then, Lil Keed has picked up the technique, adopting it for his feature on 88GLAM’s “Bankroll.” It feels like Thug intentionally tries to be weird, spicing up what would regularly be a pretty mundane track by stretching the depth of his vocal chords, exploring what he can accomplish through the power of his voice alone and trusting himself to carry the track. It helps that he has all the hottest producers on his side too.
If you’re ever in doubt that Thugger houses one of the hottest flows ever, just revisit “Harambe.” The cut is beautifully strange but it sounds so natural that it truly is one of his biggest sleeper hits.
- Alex Z
8. TECH N9NE
Despite not having a ton of mainstream success, Tech N9ne has been able to cultivate a massive cult fanbase thanks to his unique brand of hip-hop that blends elements of horror, rock, metal, and anything that has to do with the occult. Tech N9ne was able to bring horrorcore to more audiences and he just so happened to do it with one of the best flows of all-time.
With albums like Anghellic,K.O.D., Killer, and pretty well his entire discography, Tech was able to offer up a wide range of flows but his bread and butter has always been rapping fast. While some roll their eyes at fast, technical rappers for a lack of substance, Tech N9ne has been able to subvert those expectations. With every single bar, Tech feeds you sick, twisted, and devilish imagery with insane impeccable flows that will leave you satisfied every single time. From stanza to stanza, Tech can start off with a regular flow that will progressively get faster as he goes on. He uses each syllable to his advantage and will make sure he paints a picture every single time.
Perhaps Tech’s most impressive ability is to go from a technical hip-hop flow into a shouty metal chant that soars over the beat in a way that truly takes you by surprise. Being this dynamic is no easy task but Tech seems to pull it off like it’s second nature. If you were to give any fast rapper a chance, it would have to be Tech. You may have your reservations at first but we promise you, he well worth the listen. He’s a legend in the underground rap game and is a necessary addition to the top 10 of a list such as this one.
LISTEN: Devil Boy
- Alex C
7. SNOOP DOGG
As we inch our way closer to number one on the list, it was inevitable that Snoop Dogg would show up eventually. Bursting onto the scene back in 1992 thanks to Dr. Dre’s album The Chronic, Snoop Dogg immediately took audiences by storm thanks to his buttery smooth vocal delivery that felt as though you were smoking exactly what he was.
When you listen to Snoop, it really feels as though he is talking to you in a conversational tone with a little bit of oomph being added to each syllable. Snoop’s flow is so effortless that you could picture him rapping each verse while zoning out on some weed all while lying down on his couch. Every syllable is rapped with a careless demeanor that is almost impossible to find in any other MC. What’s impressive about this feeling that Snoop evokes, is that he’s able to implement it in various different flows. Whether he’s rapping at a snail’s pace or with a more rushed tempo, Snoop is always able to make himself seem like he’s not even trying that hard.
Other times, Snoop is able to come through with masterful storytelling where he changes his flow so he can get every single point across. Take, “Murder Was The Case” for example. On this track, Snoop experiments with different inflections in his voice while toying with a choppier flow. Here, Snoop is able to tease the listener as they sit on the edge of their seats waiting to see where the story is about to turn. While some artists are able to keep an audience hooked with their lyrics, Snoop is able to do with not just lyrics, but his delivery as well.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Snoop’s flow is just how unique it is. Sure there are artists who have tried to bite off of him but none have been very successful. Snoop Dogg is just too iconic to be copied and at this point, he’s so recognizable that as soon as you hear his voice, you know it’s him. While he might be more of a pop culture icon than an MC right now, there is no denying his talent and the flow that made him a staple of the 90s/00s West Coast hip-hop culture.
LISTEN: Murder Was The Case
- Alex C
Nas might be the closest to a hip-hop novelist the culture has ever seen. Strictly speaking from a lyrical perspective, the Queensbridge emcee may very well stand among the top three writers to ever do it. This much is widely understood by anybody attuned to hip-hop and its prominent players. And yet seldom is Nas’ flow the topic of discussion. Not even when he’s absolutely bodying tracks, from the golden era till this very day. As seen in the documentary Time Is Illmatic, a young Nasir Jones was quickly establishing himself as a force to be recommended with. Footage of him spazzing on stages, threatening to wave “automatic guns at nuns” made an immediate impression. Consider that such dexterous bars were still emerging as commonplace, made notable by the likes of Rakim and Slick Rick.
Moving into the new millennium found Nas attacking beats with renewed swagger, amassing more standalone images in the scope of a mere sentence than some of today’s biggest hits. “Pretty girls glance at us, status unconceivable, private planes landed out in Teterboro, weed I twirl,” he spits, in the closing moments of “Money Over Bullshit.” In what may very well be one of the greatest storytelling tracks of all time, God’s Son intro“Get Down,” Nas walks listeners through his elaborate come-up story with the finesse of a disembodied voice, somehow able at examining his surroundings down to the most meticulous level. All the while, he’s sliding effortlessly over a self-produced banger, exuding peak old school cool in his stylistic DNA.
Of course, it would be remiss to glance over Illmatic, the seminal classic that started it all. In the greater historical context, Nas’ flow on his debut stood as a cut above many of his contemporaries; though he simultaneously balanced vintage block-party rap swing with the emerging grime peddled by Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep, Nas’ expansive vocabulary and inventive turn-of-phrase allowed him more space to manipulate language. As such, his flow was given ample space to explore, with the door kicked open for all matter of segues and mid-sentence flips.
LISTEN: Get Down
While Eminem is often the source of both fan and critic’s disparagement when he releases any hint of music in 2019, we can’t forget the zany and explosive flows he brought to the scene during his humble beginnings. As far back as Infinite, Eminem has been clearly cultivating and working on both his cadence and flow. Whatever differences have affected his vocal cords with age and, well, life, at the outset, he was known for his slightly pitched-up cadence. With Infinite, he was still a bit more grounded in an old school hip-hop style (“3:13”), however, that would evolve as he became more and more comfortable with reaching into the darkest corners of his mind (and traces of this were evidenced on Infinite’s “Backstabber”), and, as well, inducing squirmish behavior in the listener.
Eminem didn’t fully arrive until everyone knew his name thanks to the aptly-titled “My Name Is…” Part of the allure with Eminem that transcends, and lifts up his flow is his unique animation and cartoon-ish behavior, as evidence on the aforementioned song as well as songs that would follow: “The Real Slim Shady,” “Ass Like That.”
In other instances, Eminem would veer off into much darker territory, with a flow to match: “Mockingbird” found Eminem sobering up his flow to match the piano-laden beat and heavy subject matter, whereas “Criminal” found him hardening up his flow, sharpening his words to keep pace with the edgey beat. Not only that, it found him altering his words in order to make both his rhyme scheme and flow work:
"My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge / That'll stab you in the head, whether you're a fag or lez / Or the homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest Pants or dress, hate fags? / The answer's 'yes'”
Eminem has often explored horrific storylines in his music, whether it’s pulling from real life experiences or his (f*cked up) imagination. We’d like to think “Stay Wide Awake” is the latter though, and it’s another amazing example of just how well Eminem manipulates the English language to make his flow work. The song appeared on his underrated Relapse album, a project that showcases plenty of serial killer and murderous fantasies on wax. However on “Stay Wide Awake” specifically, Eminem does something extremely interesting with his flow (also it feels apt that he starts the song with this line: “Soon as my flow starts I compose art like the ghost of Mozart”).
Eminem chillingly describes creeping up to an innocent woman in Central Park and raping her and killing triplet babies as soon as they’re born with a mix of formaldahyde and cyanide. As strange and haunting as the subject matter is, so too is Em’s linking of his words and sentences-- he strategically breaks up his bars to give you his thoughts in almost piecemeal manner, sometimes even breaking up the word itself into two bars:
“Fe-fi-fo-fum, I think I smell the scent of a placenta / I enter Central Park, it's dark, it's winter in December / I see my target, put my car in park, and approach a tender / Young girl by the name of Brenda, and I pretend to befriend her / Sit down beside her like a spider, hi there girl, you mighta / Heard of me before, see whore, you're the kind of girl that I'd a– / -ssault and rape, then figure why not try to make your pussy wider”
In this chunk from the first verse, you can see how “assault,” for example, begins on one bar and is finished on another. The fact that Eminem does this and still manages to make the story clear for the listener is phenomenal. He continues the feat, getting into even more sinister territory, leaving each final word on an upswing that he picks back up in his flow on the bar that follows:
“Fuck you with an umbrella then open it up while the shit's inside ya / I'm the kind of guy that's mild but I might flip and get a little bit wilder / Impregnate a lesbian, yeah, now let's see her have triplets, and I'll di– / -sintegrate them babies as soon as they're out her with formalde– / -hyde and cyanide, girl, you can try and hide, you can try to scream louder”
While we often praise Eminem for his lyrical dexterity, his flow is perhaps one aspect of his artistry that is under-praised.
LISTEN: Stay Wide Awake
“I got more flows to come, and if I ain't better than Big, I'm the closest one,” rapped Jay-Z, on his classic Blueprint cut “Hola Hovito.” A lofty boast, and one that leaves much-needed room for interpretation. For many hip-hop historians, The Notorious B.I.G. set the benchmark for the art of flow, doing so with little to no effort. Given Big’s mythic status within the pantheon of greats, it’s difficult to imagine a timeline in which the student has surpassed the teacher. And yet, thirteen studio albums removed from their classic duet “Brooklyn’s Finest,” Jay-Z has asserted himself as one of the greatest flow-spitters of all time. Some might even deem him the greatest in that regard, if only on the basis of versatility.
Before rolling with Biggie, Jay was a scholar of Jaz-O, the originator of the Triplet Flow. As such, his earliest structural DNA feels surreal to behold - a youthful Jigga-Man delivering rapid-fire tongue-twisted bars and deftly at that. As he shifted into the Mafioso-inclined territory on Reasonable Doubt, Jay explored new methods of riding a beat, sliding compound syllables into image-rich bars. “Laughing hard, happy to be escaping' poverty, however brief, I know this game got valleys and peaks,” he raps on “Can I Live,” boasting some of his strongest flows on the project. “Expectations for dips, for precipitation we stack chips.” Not only is the flip on “money for a rainy day” brilliant, but the way in which “expectation” lands on “precipitation” reveals a genius at work. Considering he emerged during an era absolutely stacked with fierce competitors, many of whom are included on this very list, Jay was forced to continuously innovate on a technical level.
As his style evolved, so too did his ear for beats widen. Across his trilogy of Volumes, Hov reverted to his double-time roots on songs like “N***a What, N***a Who,” “Can I Get A?” and “Big Pimpin.” His ability to match the variances in his production should not go unsung, and his shift from Mafia Don to pre-millennium slick talker occurred without the slightest blip in immersion. Hov’s blueprint was appropriately expanded on both Blueprints; the addition to Kanye West and Just Blaze to his recurring repertoire opened new doors for Hova, and with them new pockets to play in. Whether he’s strategically behind the beat on “U Don’t Know” or boxing lefty on “Renegade,” Hov’s unconventionality kept him firmly ahead of the pack, an imitator’s bane. Like Big, Jay never seemed to be exuding any effort, adding a cavalier charisma to every gem.
The ascent continued on The Black Album, with songs like “What More Can I Say,” and “Public Service Announcement” revealing Jay at an arguable peak. Perhaps emboldened by his looming retirement, Hov’s swan song found him at his most confident, assertive in his delivery and structure. His mastery of words was evident on highlight “Lucifer,” as he rapped “Lord forgive him, he got the dark forces in him, but he also got a righteous cause for sinnin’” before convincingly dropping “facetious” on our heads. Even when he pulled the sike and returned with American Gangster, “No Hook” proved the dust was all but shaken - if it was ever present at all.
Considering how often Jay is named as the Greatest Of All Time, it’s surprising to see him omitted from a similarly-angled flow discourse. Between his unparalleled discography and vast repertoire of hits, to underestimate Jigga’s flow would be unwise at best, ignorant at worst. There’s not a single beat he can’t adapt to, nor a scheme he’s unwilling to explore. Even when he’s lacking the grace of his competitors, his raw approach only highlights the depths of his instincts. Perhaps it’s the added benefit of going strictly cerebral with it.
LISTEN: N***a What N***a Who
- Mitch Findlay
3. NOTORIOUS B.I.G.
Despite a limited discography, as well as a limited time on this Earth, Biggie’s impact (of course) can’t be denied. Part of that impact resides in his flow. The rapper was large in stature-- and he almost used this big-ness to help dictate his flow and voice. With his nasal-driven vocals, he often sounded like he was on the brink of running out of breath-- yet it never happened. He also imbued a sense of rhythm to his flow, far ahead of our current melodic rap era, Biggie had a penchant of swinging words in a way. In rap’s heyday, melody was essentially obsolete-- it’s something that RZA recently expounded on, on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and of course, it’s evolved into the highly melodic genre we know today. What Biggie did with his flow, helped push us in this direction, to spur the evolution, from, what RZA calls “aggressive chop rap” to something a bit softer. Biggie helped us find a middle ground, before we fell off the ledge entirely (into that melodic hole) these past couple of years. Biggie nods at this exact evolution on his album, Ready to Die, almost immediately-- the “Intro” itself is a walkthrough early hip-hop styles, each style coinciding with an era of Big’s life, before we get into the aptly titled “Things Done Changed.”
On “Things Done Changed,” Biggie is almost forced into slight sing-song thanks to a lush harp sample extracted from The Main Ingredient’s “Summer Breeze” record. The inventive sample adds a sense of musicality to the record that would have been lost if it were just the typical trope of breaks and vinyl scratching-- such as the scratching you hear at the beginning of the record, which is eventually pushed out in favor of the harp sample. Biggie swings his words up like he does with the couplet “Smoking blunts in the project hallways / Shooting dice all day” to replicate the harp’s rhythm. As production techniques evolved, so too did artists’ words-- they no longer needed to stick with the early blueprint of blunted, straightforward raps.
When Big opted for a smooth, r’n’b-teetering record with “Big Poppa,” he once again played around with a flow that wavers alongside the beat’s melody. On “Suicidal Thoughts,” he introduced us to a more conversational flow, rapping to the listener as though they are the only listener, they are on the other side of a deep, and perhaps therapeutic, conversation with Big. It’s a downtrodden flow, and feels almost like an afterthought-- thus working in tandem with the song’s heavy content.
“What’s Beef” is among Big’s most melodic ventures, thanks to a sample that manipulates the string arrangement on Richard Evans’ “Close to You.” The sample is soon buried in the background of the verses, while Biggie methodically links his words together (and again, he does this masterfully, making it sound easy-- that’s always a key aspect of any perfect flow). When the hook comes back in, so too do the strings, making for, for all intents and purposes-- a melodic hook. In fact, he even gives us a proper sing-song couplet with “There'll be nothin' but smooth sailin' / When I spit shots, now your crew's bailin'” at the outset of the song’s third verse and brief beat switch-up.
We don’t refer to Biggie as one of the best to ever do it for no reason.
LISTEN: What's Beef?
2. LIL WAYNE
“Live from the 504/ It’s Mr. Crazy Flow, jumpin’ like a bungie, no rope,” Wayne uttered as he stepped into BET’s Rap City Basement for a historical moment in rap history. The line was later re-used “Live From The 504” freestyle but Wayne has maintained that approach to every single song he’s created. Mind you, his discography isn’t flawless. Weezy has, however, innovated his flow at every turn of his career. Perhaps that’s Jay-Z’s influence but even with the large influx of music during his reign as mixtape king, the rapper has never allowed dull moments.
Wayne’s slick wordplay and otherworldly references made him one of the sharpest lyricists but even with an incredible pen, it’s the conviction and his delivery that’s kept his music riveting. Throughout the 2000s, Wayne kept it exciting -- from his mixtape run, Tha Carter series and the hundreds of leaks -- by his ability to switch up the flow every single time. Even when he approached already established songs, he made it his own based on the strength of how he strung together verses. He takes syllables and stretches them as if its malleable metal and emphasizes it in a way that sets precedent for the rest of the rhyme scheme, whether or not the words themselves are actually supposed to rhyme.
More than that, there’s a fluidity in his flow that submerges you into his world. “Pussy Money Weed” is a great example of this. He channels an inner-Andre 3000, not only with the choice of production but also, his adaptation of Andre’s own flow. He innovates the rhyme scheme and original flow that uses each break and bar and turns it into a soliloquy. Although he can bring you into an atmospheric world with his stylistic approach to his flow, he wouldn’t be able to do that without skillfully mastering the technical side of things. In recent times, he’s shown this on Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now,” along with Busta Rhymes, where goes into double-time effortlessly.
Wayne is a student of the game but he’s undoubtedly transitioned into the sensei. His flow has been used, flipped, and influenced those who’ve gone onto the influence the game themselves. From his protegee, Drake, who undoubtedly took a thing or two from Wayne in his early years, to Young Thug’s reign as one of the greatest artists of the 21st century, the elasticity of Wayne’s use of words and delivery has transcended his own peer group and continues to influence generations of rappers to come after him.
LISTEN: A Milli
1. ANDRE 3000
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Andre 3000, also known as ½ of the iconic duo OutKast, is #1. It was no difficult task, to be sure-- Big Boi earns his spot on this list too, and it’s always with a heavy heart that we dissect and pit these two ATL OGs against each other (and to be clear, we are not really attempting to do that-- they each gave the whole rap game a wealth of inspiration, creativity, and ultimately pushed the genre forward, both as a duo and individually).
Since we have divided OutKast into their individual counterparts for the purpose of this list, let’s assess. If we’re to look at Andre 3000 for his influence across the game, we’d find that his fingerprints are across many an aspect of our current era, and the eras before it. Singing on a rap song? Check. Unafraid to be a unique and quirky individual, almost to a fault? Check. Keen sense of fashion and style? Check. Creative song topics? Check. Vulnerable, emotionally mature and self-aware? Check.
These are just some of the ways Andre approached both his music and his persona, at least for the brief amount of time that he did relish (if we can even say “relish”) the spotlight, during peak OutKast. It also acts as a checklist for your modern-day would-be rapper. Each artist is expected to wear their heart on their sleeve these days, and those sleeves better be some obscure vintage piece or else high-end designer. Andre 3k was a style icon for hip-hop, before we had dudes like A$AP Rocky holding the mantle.
Now zeroing in on the musical and technical aspect of Andre’s rap career. There is something truly spectacular about when the elusive Andre 3k hits the mic. Perhaps it’s the amount of attention and thought that Andre 3000 gives to his words. “Mumble rappers” and the current trend of artists “freestyling” entire songs and albums, as opposed to writing down their lyrics on paper (or an iPhone Notes application) means that, while there is also room for a certain spontaneity and freedom, there is also room for mistakes and rough drafts becoming final copies. The fine-tuning of a record, and the intricacies therein-- finding the exact flow or melody for a certain part of a beat, and (re)assessing the best word to use in a given couplet-- are often lost. If it’s the Art of Flowing, then we need to take a page out of Andre’s book. Andre 3000 is clearly the kind of artist where you can actually hear that he takes the time to sit down, think about his words, how to organize them, how to structure his rhymes-- you can easily imagine that he probably writes, and rewrites, and edits, and rewrites, until a verse is perfect. It’s a given that this type of meticulous nature would also coincide with the approach to flow, perhaps inextricably so, given that all those words need to be delivered somehow.
It is this precise nature that leads Andre 3000 to be a masterclass when it comes to flow. Where a fellow Atlanta native like T.I. chooses to lean into his Southern accent, using it almost like a crutch when he flows, Andre managed to both distance himself from that Southern twang, and using it to his advantage whenever he felt like it. Andre also took advantage of melodies, before it was the trend du-jour-- and he also maintained a sense of lyrical dignity while employing said melodies (which seems to be among the biggest gripes for the melodic-minded rappers currently: lack of #bars). If we put things into perspective, Andre “solo” album The Love Below was rampant with records that found him full-out singing (“Hey Ya” is verging on folk song territory???), and this was in 2003 -- before Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak (2008), before Drake.
Andre explored so many different flows when it comes to down it. We could write a three-part essay series dissecting them all. Since we’re already encroaching TL;DR territory, we’ll look at two distinct examples.
On one of OutKast’s biggest records, “Ms. Jackson,” Andre showcased one facet of his flow-- the ability to “become one” with the beat. Beyond his melodic hook, Andre links his words together in such a stilted yet purposeful way that it can often feel like it’s part of the production, and, at times, he essentially did become part of the production (on the same album, “Gasoline Dreams” and “Xplosion” showcase this well, especially due to the added vocal effects).
“Thoughts of me, thoughts of she, thoughts of he / Asking what happened to the feeling that her and me had / I pray so much about it, need some knee pads / It happened for a reason, one can't be mad”
However, perhaps his most distinct and “trademark” flow is a conversational one (as he says on T.I.’s “Sorry”: “I don’t even like rapping fast”). On the melancholic Drake song “The Real Her,” Andre delivers a slow-moving verse in this exact style. The rapper sometimes veers into what feels like spoken-word territory (but without the heaviness that often comes with the label) when he employs his conversational flow (also see: “God (Interlude)”). This was the case again on the epic remix of Chris Brown’s “Deuces” where Andre somewhat lazily raps-- clearly mindful of what he’s doing (!!)--
“We out here tryna have a good time / And here I am, all heavy with the words where / Somebody that's a nerd, likely fast forward / But, shit, they asked for it / It’s hard to throw up them deuces ‘Cause when you know it’s juicy / You start to sound like / Confucius when makin' up excuses / Chase the Cabooses until the track gone / I gotta find me a new locomotive, stop makin' sad songs.”
Part of the appeal, again, not only goes back to the distinct manner in which he pronounces each word and syllable, but also the breadth of his vocabulary, and the fact that he more often than not, managed to also share a ‘short story’ with each verse he bestowed (Future’s “Benz Friendz” is another great example). These ‘short stories’ were all the more impactful because of the way they came off his tongue, as though, he’s really only speaking to you.
What do you think of our list? Sound off in the comments with your personal top 5, dissect and debate!