As a regional hodgepodge of basketball teams prepare for their respective Sweet 16 battle with hopes of justifying the hype (like Louisville) or continuing to shock the proverbial system (Florida Gulf Coast), our thoughts drifted from twine tickling to bar-spitting. A classic hip-hop verse (a hot 16) is a lot like a Cinderella story in fact; it can come out of nowhere and in certain instances that singular moment of verbal bracket busting can be the pinnacle of an artist’s career. Rather than rank the best 16 verses, we thought we’d take a different approach and feature 16 of the greatest verses from 16 completely different emcees – hoping to showcase a variety of styles, rhyme patterns and levels of success.
Editors: note: It takes a certain amount of self-realization to make a list, put it on the internet, and have the audacity to claim it as fact. The ensuing editorial is then peppered with justifiable holes and deemed “wrong.” We realize that we may have missed things, or that a favorite emcee was omitted, but we’d like to believe that this list encompasses some classic bars that span the history of hip-hop. One verse. 16 different rappers. Alphabetical order.
2Pac: Makaveli “Hail Mary” 1st verse
Best Lines: I ain’t a killer, but don’t push me/Revenge is like the sweetest joy next to getting pussy/Picture paragraphs unloaded, wise words being quoted/Peep the weakness in the rap game and sewed it.
The final single from his final album, 2Pac’s first verse on “Hail Mary” showcased his focused aggression and his transcendent ability to segue between street narratives, sexual undertones and a certain scholarly approach to writing.
Andre 3000: Outkast “Babylon” 1st Verse
Best Lines: I came into this world high as a bird/From second hand cocaine powder
I know it sounds absurd/I never tooted but its in my veins.
The 8th cut from Outkast’s ATLiens finds 3 Stacks in sharp form over a sample by Vangelis. During the promotion for the album Andre spoke with Billboard about his approach and noted “It’s like everybody’s talking about sipping champagne and being big time, so we just took it upon ourselves to do something new … I want my children to say, ‘Daddy really said something, he wasn’t just trying to brag on himself.’”
Big L: Big L “Ebonics” 1st Verse
Best Lines: A radio is a box, a razor blade is a ox/Fat diamonds is rocks and jakes is cops/And if you got robbed, you got stuck/If you got shot, you got bucked/And if you got double-crossed, you got fucked.
On December 18, 1996, a controversial resolution was passed by the Board of Education of Oakland, California that recognized the legitimacy and significance of ebonics in the cultural lives and in the education of African American children and was coined by Dr. Robert L. Williams. Three years later, Big L took a tongue-and-cheek approach to breaking down the various terms associated – presenting a culturally aware song that was one part revelatory and equal parts entertaining.
Black Thought: The Roots “Web” 1st Verse
Best Lines: Talk sharp like a razor blade under the tongue/Clear my path and come get your captain hung/Trying to breath like Black’ll collapse your lungs/Young chump you could choke off the web I spun/I done cleared ‘em out from the thread I brung.
Black Thought has the knack for crafting classic songs that don’t rely on catchy hooks (which would later be recognized on “Don’t Say Nuthin”). Never coming up for air, his first verse on “Web” remains a benchmark for aggressive deliveries.
Common: Common “The 6th Sense” 2nd Verse (1:31)
Best Lines: If revolution had a movie I’d be theme music/My music, you either fight, fuck, or dream to it/My life is one big rhyme, I try to scheme through it.
The Windy City’s poet laureate and DJ Premier marry smooth production with lyrics that both simultaneously uplift and unearth various sociopolitical issues surrounding the state of hip-hop culture.
Eminem: The Notorious B.I.G. featuring Eminem “Dead Wrong (remix) 3rd Verse (3:24)
Best Lines: There’s several different levels of Devil worshipping/Horse’s heads, human sacrifices, cannibalism, candles and exorcism/Animals, having sex with them, camels, mammals and rabbits/But I don’t get into that, I kicked the habit/I just beat you to death with weapons that eat through the flesh/And I never eat you unless the fucking meat looks fresh/I got a lion in my pocket, I’m lying I got a nine in my pocket, and baby I’m just dying to cock him.
Eminem has countless verses that could have been considered, but his internal rhyme scheme and subject matter – when combined with Biggie’s hulking and commanding voice – provides what makes Em so special. When you see his words written down on the page, it begs the question: how did he make that sound like it rhymes?!
Ghostface Killah: Ghostface Killah featuring Cappadonna, Method Man & Redman “Buck 50” 5th Verse (2:45)
Best Lines: All up in the parrot, nose numb, real as they come/Biggie’s Versaces, snow white rabbit/Hands is like photographic magic/Funeral love, move in when we hug, don’t make it a habit.
Wu-Tang and posse cuts go together like bees and honey. Paired with a roster of heavyweights that rarely get outshined on a song, Ghostdini proves his unorthodox and uncontrollable style with gems like “Supercalifragalisticexpialidocious. Dociousaliexpifragalisticcalisuper.”
GZA: GZA “Labels” 1st Verse
Best Lines: And if you ain’t boned a mic you couldn’t hurt a bee/That’s like going to Venus driving a mercury/The capitol of this rugged slang is Wu-Tang/Witty unpredictable talent and natural game.
When GZA decided to provide a Wu Gambino view on record label politics, listeners were left with a road map exploring how artists go from streets paved with gold to the unemployment line.
Jay-Z: Jay-Z “D’evils” 1st Verse
Best Lines: Life ills poisoned my body/I used to say fuck mic skills/I never prayed to God, I prayed to Gotti.
It’s easy to only see Jay-Z as the mogul he is today. But during his Reasonable Doubt days where he’d make his ascent to a pinnacle we’re all now keenly aware of, Hov laid down an ethos key to his success both on the mic and in business.
Kanye West: Kanye West “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” 1st Verse
Best Lines: I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven/When I woke, I spent that on a necklace/I told God I’d be back in a second/Man it’s so hard not to act reckless.
There have been few men before Kanye West who managed to both over-saturate the marketplace with their existence yet miraculously able to keep parts of their success and persona an enigma. In his first verse on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” Mr. West unleashes a cross-section of his interests and his grapple with an ego that sticks to him like a shadow.
Kool G Rap: Kool G Rap “Men at Work” 1st Verse
Best Lines: I’m alone but my tone is a sharp tune/Developing pictures in your brain like a darkroom/Rappers are captured and tortured with rapture/ In 3-D is a G coming at you.
Pulled from the Marley Marl-produced cut on Road to Riches, “Men at Work” is the perfect example of G Rap’s multisyllabic rhyme style that was completely new in 1989.
Mos Def: Black Star “RE:Definition” 2nd Verse (1:25)
Best Lines: Son I’m way past the minimum, entering millennium/My raps will hold a gat to your back like Palestinians/Ancient Abyssinia, sure to hold the Gideon/Official b-boy gentlemen, long term, never the interim/Born inside the winter wind, day after December 10/These simpletons they mentioned in the synonym for feminine.
It’s hard to point to a singular work of brilliance from the Mighty Mos Def, but “RE:Definition” is a strong example of just how many internal rhymes he could pack into a verse without losing sight of the conceptual finish line.
Nas: Main Source featuring Nas “Live At The Barbeque” 1st Verse
Best Lines: Verbal assassin, my architect pleases/When I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus/Nasty Nas is a rebel to America/Police murderer, I’m causing hysteria.
At just 18 years old – and three years before the release of his debut classic Illmatic – the world was introduced to Nasty Nas courtesy of an appearance on Main Source’s “Live At The Barbeque.” At the time, making references to being “iller than an AIDS patient” and “snuffing Jesus” just wasn’t being done.
The Notorious B.I.G.: The Notorious B.I.G. “Kick in the Door” 3rd Verse (3:59)
Best Lines: This goes out for those that choose to use/Disrespectful views on the King of N-Y/Fuck that, why try, throw bleach in your eye/Now ya brailling it, snatch that light shit, I’m scaling it/Conscious of ya nonsense, in eighty-eight/Sold more powder than Johnson and Johnson/Tote steel like Bronson, “Vigilante”/You wanna get on son, you need to ask me/Ain’t no other kings in this rap thing/They siblings, nothing but my children/One shot they disappearin’.
Biggie had the transcendent ability to continually top himself. After two fairly memorable verses – with lines like “your reign on the top was short like leprechauns” and “you herbs get stuck quickly for royalties and show money,” the black Frank White got locked in and showed why he’d go on to be the G.O.A.T.
Raekwon: Ghostface Killah featuring Raekwon, GZA, Masta Killah and Cappadonna “Wu Banga 101” 3rd Verse (1:33)
Best Lines: Egyptian, brown skin brown suede Timbs/Masqueradin X-rated throw blades, all occasions/Round nozzle touchdown, Haagen-Dazs goggles White House/Gucci flag on the roof, call us rock groups.
Raekwon is all about encrypted brilliance. While others come right out and say it, the Chef has the unique ability to really make his statements and rhyme scheme come alive in a roundabout way.
Rakim: Eric B. & Rakim “Follow the Leader” 1st verse
Best Lines: Follow me into a solo, get in the flow/And you can picture like a photo/Music mix, mellow maintains to make/Melodies for emcees, motivates the breaks/I’m everlasting, I can go on for days and days/With rhyme displays that engrave deep as x-rays/I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard/Flip it – now it’s a daily word.
Much like Kool G Rap, Rakim was ahead of his time and provided a smoothed out flow during an era where other emcees kept it basic in fears of stumbling over their words.