There’s a misunderstanding of the term lyricism, one that fixates almost purely on intricate rhyming. But hip-hop is full of dope lyricists crafting powerful verses of all kinds that stoke emotion and awe.
And there’s more to a great verse than just verbal dexterity. Delivery, energy, tone, content, emotion, and cadence are all factors that play a part in how powerful a verse radiates.
Our list of 2018’s best verses reflects the wide spectrum of what classifies as a dope 16 — or more. There’s JAY-Z, Black Thought, and J. Cole with lyrical exercises. There’s Royce Da 5’9, Nipsey Hussle, and Saba telling stories that feel like audial VR. Meek Mill, Mozzy, and YMW Melly are spilling pain, while Payroll Giovanni and CupcakKe are giving out game.
If you have someone in your life always griping some variation that “nobody” is saying anything in hip-hop, send them this list of the 19 best rap verses of 2018. Watch their whole mood change, because there’s a little something for everyone here.
On “10 Years, 1 Summer,” Detroit’s Payroll Giovanni does what he does best: take us into the mind of a D-Boy to highlight how fleeting and hazardous the drug game is. From his opening “you a drug dealer now, big dope runner” line, he carries on the legacy of Scarface and Ice Cube to weave a cautionary second person narrative.
The verse starts off reflecting on the part of the game that’s all good, but then he ponders, “is you getting followed or you just trippin’? Your gut told you yes but you still went against it.” Payroll follows that up by sarcastically rhyming, “shit you gotta ball this summer for the bitches and impress a bunch of lame ass niggas;” he puts the fallacy on front street. In just 16 bars, Payroll highlights that no matter how glorious the game seems, at its high point, the reward is far outweighed by the risk of jail time.
It’s as simple as 10 > 1.
One of the worst trends of 2018 is people applying the term “blacked” to the most mundane tasks (think baking a cake or saying obvious things about racial inequality.) Flatbush Zombies’ Meechy Darko set the bar for “Blackin’ out” with his verse on “U&I,” from the group’s Vacation in Hell album.
He takes us through the wringer with a gruff delivery, pledging allegiance to his Flatbush Zombie brothers (“Erick, if I could, I’d give your mama my kidney”) and poignantly divulging that “when I was five, I told my mom I wanted to die. Then we cried. The crazy shit, man, it wasn’t a lie.” His autobiographical verse reflects on society’s collective addictions, how his Aunt’s death from cancer made him quit smoking, and how, even though he spent his first big check on jewelry, “that flashy shit won’t prevail. I really be shopping for happiness, but that shit ain’t for sale.”
He covers an impressive amount of ground in a short span. Throughout the verse there’s wisdom, heartfelt reflection, and slick wordplay. The fact that the verse was delivered with a gravelly angst and straightforward flow makes each bar hit even harder.
Rico Nasty starts off her 16 on Amine’s “Sugarparents” by playing with the “sugar mama” trope, but ultimately acknowledging that “sex sells, spend it on my retail. You gotta pay attention to the details.” With just those opening bars, she let us know that when she plays into what the patriarchal music industry expects of her, it’s because she chooses to.
The DMV upstart is well aware that by mere virtue of being a woman rapping, she’s sexualized by many fans. She then spends the rest of her hypnotic verse setting the tone for her relationships with Instagram caption-worthy lines like “I can spend it on you but I ain’t easy,” “he want me to buy him shoes, he ain’t worth shoestrings,” and “I’ma let him break the rules if the head straight,” before surmising “but I’m good, I don’t really need the deadweight.”
Rico’s verse shows how powerful it is when you own your convictions in a world that tries to set your terms for you. And it also shows the DMV spitter can rap her ass off.
Joey Bada$$ alleged in 2017 that J. Cole was “done with features,” but then Jermaine proceeded to spend 2018 killing every guest verse he jumped on. His appearance on Royce Da 5’9’s “Boblo Boat” stands atop the heap. Cole contributed an assonant, autobiographical reflection of life in his native Fayetteville, recounting his “main concern back when concerns were lesser:” thinking that “I’m not a real nigga ’til I undress her. I gotta ‘press her.”
He rhymes fondly about taking swigs and tokes in his mama’s Civic when there were “five semesters left until college,” before summating that “life is not no word processor” and bringing us back to 2018, where he deals with “the stress of my real-life trauma plus fickle niggas thinking they done heard the best of Jermaine Lamarr.” He spends the rest of the verse on a lyrical exercise, cleverly dating his teenage memories as “BC, before cell phones,” letting us know he first smoked at six, then capping off his heatrock with the following bars: “I made it out unscathed and now I sunbathe with my son in Tanzanian sunrays thinking ’bout dumb days.”
Cole went full Freytag’s Pyramid on “Boblo Boat,” building a story, contextualizing it, then closing it off with one of his dopest closers of the year.
YNW Melly’s opening verse on “Murder On My Mind” wasn’t 16 bars, it was 6 x 8. The young Floridian sucked us into the confines of his mind as he suffers through a bid, where he can’t hug his mother on Christmas, and “can’t even post on my Instagram ’cause these pussy niggas be snitching.” America’s ignorance toward the plight of incarcerated people is especially disheartening when artists like YMN Melly are crying out, with bars like the following that highlight how the prison industrial complex doesn’t spur rehabilitation, but self-medication:
When I’m all alone in my jail cell, I tend to get in my feelings
And all I smoke is that loud, don’t pass me no midget
And I’ma smoke all of my pain away ’cause that the only thing that gone’ heal it
His pain from incarceration — “everybody acting suspicious” — and phony women are all-too-common burdens in society, and the way he was able to encapsulate it all in concise couplets with sorrowful melodies made for one of the most heartfelt moments of the year.
Mozzy has long been one of the game’s best hood orators, and “Seasons,” off of Black Panther: The Album, was his opportunity to show the whole world. He borrows from the film’s Afrocentric themes to get his Killmonger on, bemoaning that we’re “trapped in the system, traffickin’ drugs, modern-day slavery, African thugs,” and “we go to war for this African blood.” Mozzy also celebrated his mother because ”she worked her ass off just to feed us,” but noted that even she couldn’t save him from society’s failure: “She used to tap in with all the teachers. They wasn’t teachin’ nothin’, it’s no secret.” It’s also no secret that Mozzy’s verse is going to resonate for many seasons to come.
For every refreshing artist like Tierra Whack, there are dozens of rappers retreading like street workers. The gifted Philly artist took them all to task on “Dr. Seuss,” a song from her Whack World project. On “Dr. Seuss,” she conquered a rite of passage for great MCs: berating phony rappers. A line like “I’m sick and tired of all these niggas lyin’” isn’t a groundbreaking call out, but it’s directly preceded by a clever setup that “I live in the hospital,” and placed in the middle of a verse that cascades the pitch of her voice from helium high to a lethargic low.
That gradual vocal shift is so brilliant in its simple ingenuity that you wonder why other rappers don’t employ the trick more often. But other rappers aren’t Tierra Whack, which is the whole point of the verse. Every rapper calls out their peers, but demanding them to think outside of the box while delivering outside the box vocal mixing is why Meek Mill calls Whack “the future” every chance he gets.
J.I.D begins “Off Da Zoinkys” with, “y’all niggas need to lay off the drugs.” That declaration could be easily dismissed depending on the messenger. But when the case is laid out the way J.I.D did on his Dicaprio 2 standout, it’s hard to ignore.
Just a few bars later, he rhymes, “Mr. Know-It-All, ‘oh here he go,’” humorously acknowledging that he’s treading sanctimonious waters. After he drops six more bars letting young listeners know he’s one of them, rhyming, “I’m the nigga lit the blunt with the blunt, I’ma get it ’cause I want what I want,” he implores us to “look at the pain in your eyes, nigga, look where we been/look at our wins, look at our sins, and look at our skin.”
His extended verse wasn’t coming from a place of self-righteousness, but out of genuine concern because “niggas dyin,’ we ain’t sayin’ enough.” J.I.D knows that detached moralism or harsh Russ-isms won’t get the point across to kids sucked into the pharmaceutical industry’s trap. That’s why he took the route that he knew would make everyone listen: a thrilling double-time flow over thumping 808s. Leave it to the 28-year-old breakout star to know the perfect way to thread the needle and let his generation know that, “I ain’t sayin’ it’s wrong, but it’s some other shit we can be on.”
Everyone’s trying to find peace of mind, but few have chronicled their journey this year better than Frank Ocean on A$AP Rocky’s “Purity.” Frank’s catalog has earned him renown as one of music’s best songwriters, and on “Purity,” a song about the relentless chase for existential solace, Frank affirms that dope rhymes and dope songwriting are one and the same.
His gift for metaphor shines throughout the verse, especially when he plays with the “brain on drugs” anti-Drug campaign with the vivid line, “this white got eggshells in my omelet.” He then uses a reference to his stay in the Mercer, where he recorded his Endless album, as the impetus to express his ethos in concise, declarative bars like “fired the label like fuck brands, Comfortable low nigga, fuck Xans.” He also combats homophobic stereotypes by likening himself to fellow New Orleans legend Master P: “Nothin’ is sweet, nothin’ in tank sweet, it’s just a tank P.”
He certainly dropped a bomb with his “Purity” verse, once again demonstrating that there are no limits to his musical ability.
Imagine an artist who’s never released a rap album jumping on a track with JAY-Z and holding their own. Now imagine that the artist is also the biggest music star in the world.
Beyoncé’s opener on “Apeshit” was so powerful not because of the novelty of her spitting, but because she did it so well, showing off a mastery of the trap sound that epitomizes her musical brilliance. It’s also worth noting that before she started stuntin,’ she began her verse with, “gimme my check, put some respek on my check, or pay me in equity, watch me reverse out of debt.”
She then spends the rest of the verse flaunting as only she can. Bars like “bought him a jet, shut down Colette,” are hyperbolic for the average artist, but “average” is pretty much an antonym of Beyoncé at this point. It’s always refreshing to hear that boss talk from a woman’s perspective, and who better than Beyoncé to go “Apeshit” and deliver it?
It doesn’t get more 2018 than a verse popularized by a meme finding its way onto the list, but G-Herbo’s “Who Run It” redux deserves it. Herbo has been criticized for being a bit blue in the face on certain beats, but he hit his pocket and never looked back over the Three 6 Mafia classic, rhyming that flashy, gritty shit that the hood loves him for.
The impact of this verse isn’t drawn from the bars or an amazing usage of literary devices, but the kind of nimble, catchy cadence that makes you want to write some bars of your own. That’s what a lot of his peers did, including A$AP Rocky, 21 Savage, Lil Yachty, Trippie Redd, CupcakKe, Young M.A., and Lil Uzi Vert, who joined G Herbo on the remix he recorded. Herbo probably didn’t know his radio freestyle would set off the year’s hottest freestyle trend and have half the game paying homage to legends, but we’re glad it happened.
Royce Da 5’9’s second verse of “Power” is like a self-contained episode of a TV series. The standout track from Royce’s Book Of Ryan reflects on his dysfunctional family, with the second verse honing in on a troubling Thanksgiving. Using a melodic, stop and start flow, Royce pens a palpable image of his drunk brother Greg stumbling in while he and his other brother Kid Vishis are playing Connect Four and watching Bloodsport. Royce immerses the listener with his attention to detail and the tense humor of a bar like “I’m looking at Frank Dux and shit, thinkin’ you should split.”
He uses Greg’s plight to offer backstory on his father’s physical abuse (spurred by his substance abuse) and how it’s now reflected in Greg’s bad habits and “illusion that he gon’ protect us all from the Big Bad Wolf.” In just one verse, Royce recounts an indelible memory, gives poignant backstory, and doesn’t sacrifice any of his considerable technical lyricism or command of flow to do such. That’s power.
It’s hard for an artist to dish off social commentary without being accused of preaching or shaming. Luckily for us, shame isn’t in CupcakKe’s vocabulary. That’s why she went all in on “Cereal and Water,” dispensing tough love in an extended verse laced with smoke for everyone. CupcakKe’s sex-positive lyrics have gotten her stamped with the “raunchy” label, but “Cereal and Water’s” second verse shows her calling everyone on their shit. She rhymes at a steady pace, emphasizing the impact of her end rhyme on bars like “women scared to tell what they age is, ’cause men want the kids, fuckin’ rapists.”
Her commentary excels by playing on double meanings with lines like “struggle might drain me but I ain’t sink,” “suicide, they givin’ up so quickly, jump out the car but not doin’ the Shiggy,” and the damning sting that the “same man say he don’t fear shit, be scared to wipe the shit from his child ass.” Her verse shows off not just her biggest gripes with society, but her ability to convey them with clever witticisms and aphoristic poetics.
Saba uses his delivery as a plot device throughout Care For Me’s “PROM / KING,” especially during the final verse. His cadence acts as the toggle for the verse’s tension, pushing the listener headfirst into a narrative about how his cousin Walter called him with an urgent tone that let us know he didn’t have good news. He then rhymes about Walter discussing being shot at on the highway and takes us through his own thought process, pondering “sometimes I fuckin’ hate Chicago cause I hate this feelin’,” and lamenting that “the news prolly gon’ run this as two gangs from different streets.”
He further ratchets up the intensity for the final stretch of bars, rhyming ominously about how “Grandma made his plate, we played 2K, that’s just a day before.” The combination of his artfully unhinged rhyming, the track’s rapidly rolling drums and divulging the five Ws of his day let us know that when he got a call during a studio session, it was sure to be delivering earth-shattering news. Those familiar with Saba and Care For Me already knew the conclusion of the story, but once he eased off his manic delivery while rhyming “wherever you are my nigga, we’ll come and find you,” and the beat dropped into a void, the line transmuted from a physical search into a spiritual one.
That’s how you show, not tell, with nothing but your voice.
Nipsey Hussle is known for his motivational anthems, but his storytelling ability is top-notch. His compelling final verse on “Blue Laces 2” spells that out, as he coalesces his rhyming ability and “in the field” experience to deliver a glimpse of the aftermath of a shootout. Rhymes like, “drivin’ now, police chopper ahead flyin’ now, really not too spooked, calmly asked me, ‘am I dyin’ now?'” convey powerful imagery, and his admission to “crackin’ jokes like, ‘nigga, now you gon’ be finally respected'” doubly functions as an injection of humor and a harsh reminder that gang warfare isn’t too far off from military exploits.
But while soldiers get purple hearts after shootouts, Nipsey has to make sure his man remembers the alibi that they “ain’t see nothing, but the flare from the talons fly, I wasn’t there, I was passin’ by.’” Rappers often rhyme about letting off shots at fictitious slaves to a page in their rhymebook, but rarely do we get such graphic narratives that reflect the all-too-real consequences of gun violence.
On the final stretch of “Games We Play,” Pusha finally addresses the “he only raps about coke” critique that’s followed him and flips it from a censure into an affirmation. Consider the following bars:
This ain’t for the conscious, this is for the mud-made monsters
Who grew up on legends from outer Yonkers
Influenced by niggas straight outta Compton, the scale never lies
I’m two-point-two incentivized.
Those four lines form the out-of-bounds marker separating his fellow players from the spectators. If you had to google what “2.2 incentivized” means, then “this ain’t really for you, this is for the Goya Montoya.”
After that, he delivers another extended metaphor comparing the drug game to chess. He calls himself “the only Kingpin who ain’t sinking,” rhymes, “chess moves are made, my third eye ain’t blinking,” then demanded his peers “stay woke, nigga or get out,” delivering a bar that’s a literal caution to co-defendants and a reference to Get Out, the horror film about Black people whose consciousness is submerged while their bodies are occupied by non-Black, non-”woke” predators. Eghk.
Black Thought spurred lofty expectations when he announced his first solo project with Streams Of Thoughts Vol. 1. Once he tore off into “Twofifteen” with an assonant ode to fish plates from the church, he literally brought it home.
One of the most impressive elements of “Twofifteen’s” extended verse is how Black Thought imbued his wordplay with powerful references. Take, for instance, “back when local R&B was just as soulful as orthopedics” which plays on the words “sole” and “soul” to deliver a top-notch double entendre and commentary on the state of modern R&B. There’s also, “I heard murder ran this vast, deserted land/since back when Burning Man was blacks in Birmingham,” which is not just technically impeccable, but positions today’s arts and culture festival next to Jim Crow era treachery as disparate glimpses of American history through the same phrase.
Throughout “Twofifteen,” Black Thought is able to tell his story of Philly, show off his technical lyricism, as well as drop powerful metaphors and wordplay that fits the verse’s aim of edification. This is MCing at it’s best, and one of the strongest verses of 2019, or any year.
Meek Mill had a lot to express after being bailed out from his unjust probation sentence and becoming the face of criminal justice reform. He unfurled it all with his typically fiery opening verse on “Ooodles O’Noodles Babies,” commandeering the soulful sample with poignant recollections that “I used to wish that my daddy was livin.’ I had a dream that I seen him as ghost” and the following passage:
Killed my lil’ cousin, I’m like, “Damn it, man”
Had to see the footage on a camera, man
On the pavement, with his brains out
With the white sheet, he was laid out
Wanna ask ‘Ye, “Is this a choice?”
It was like this when I came out
Kanye West knows the answer to that question, but the full context of Meek’s hardships before that gut-punch of a quandary serves as food for thought for everyone who’s collectively sustaining a system ”designed just to eat us up,” as the Dreamchaser proclaimed. Meek has said that a lot of the men he was incarcerated with relied on him to tell their story, and this scintillating, insightful set off on “Oodles O’Noodles Babies” was his finest singular testimony of 2018.
JAY-Z starts off his closing verse of “What’s Free” with the context that he’s a descendant of a people deemed “three-fifths of a man” in a not-so-distant economy. But right after that, he let us know that he represents a “hunnid’ percent of TIDAL to bust it up with my Gs.”
With his knack for wordplay in tow, he goes on to discuss the obstacles he overcame to reach that circumstance in a racist country with a music industry full of 360 deals, inflated streaming totals, and “niggas [who] won’t ever work together.”
The verse functions as a treatise on systemic oppression for the younger generation, an affirmation that Jay is “carefree” with “no shuck in me,” and a reminder that on a song with artists he predates by generations, he can still come off the freshest. And Hov did all of that while rhyming over a beat canonized by his onetime best friend, The Notorious B.I.G., who he often discussed this very rise with. It’s as if he had his own LeBron James-Dwyane Wade final chapter moment with Big from beyond the grave.
That’s a Championship moment for real.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.
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