Including Kendrick, Black Thought, 3 Stacks, and more.

By Christopher R. WeingartenEve BarlowBrian JosephsChristian Holub and Eli Enis
December 06, 2019 at 02:09 PM EST
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Credit: Mychal Watts/Getty Images; Rick Kern/Getty Images; Paras Griffin/WireImage; Christopher Polk/Getty Imagess; Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

To celebrate the end of the 2010s, Entertainment Weekly is looking back at the best pop culture of the decade that changed movies, TV, music, and more. Today, we count down the best rap verses of the last 10 years.

10. Drake on Rick Ross’ “Stay Schemin” (2012)

Out of every one of Drake’s permutations (Afropop Drake, Dancehall Drake, Heartbreak Drake), Angry Drake has been one of the most enduring. The year 2012 was a strange enough time for him to be locked in a feud with Common. The lasting artifact of that beef was “Stay Schemin,” the finale of Rick Ross’ classic mixtape, Rich Forever. Drake’s performance — riddled with a high volume of quotables per four bars — showed it wasn’t that hard of a choice letting Drake get on the final song. Of course, the signature moment is that “You wasn’t with me shooting in the gym” line that came at Kobe Bryant’s then-estranged wife Vanessa Bryant’s expense. The catchphrase became ubiquitous enough to earn Vanessa’s scorn: When she reconciled with Kobe, Vanessa called out the “immature kids [who] quote a rapper that has never been friends with Kobe and knows nothing about our relationship.” It didn’t matter. As soon as “Stay Schemin'” dropped, Drake’s indignation was ours. —Brian Josephs

9. Andre 3000 on Frank Ocean’s “Solo (Reprise)” (2016)

Every new Andre 3000 verse sounds like a miracle. Along with his OutKast co-conspirator Big Boi, Andre changed the history of hip-hop with hugely important work. Unlike Big Boi, he has yet to release an album as a solo act, but he’s still out here rapping — and whenever he graces another artist’s track he can really bring the house down. On “Solo,” 3 Stacks takes the whole hip-hop industry to task for not living up to the standard set by OutKast and others in the wake of revelations that superstars like Drake used ghostwriters. “I’ve stumbled and lived every word, was I just working way too hard?” is a devastating way to close a song that, in keeping with Blonde’s larger themes of loneliness and alienation, already hit us with the devastating poetics of desperation: “So low my halo stay way low, it feels like it’s bent.” —Christian Holub

8. Jay Rock – “Money Trees” (2012)

Jay Rock almost immediately becomes an essential presence in good kid, m.A.A.d. city when his grizzled voice appears as the album’s first guest rapper. He’s a counterpart to Kendrick Lamar’s young narrator: wearier and drained of that youthful vigor. You quickly understand why as he details a life where carrying a gun is essential for survival and is governed by prejudiced police practices. His delivery is key, too. “My homeboy just dome’d a n— /I just hope the Lord forgive him,” Jay raps, stretching the syllables under the weight of the mortal sin. —BJ

7. 2 Chainz on Kanye West’s “Mercy” (2012)

The rapper born Tauheed Epps spent much of 2011 and 2012 logging an absurd amount of guest appearances and rebranding from his commercially unlikely rap name (“Tity Boi”). He combined an arsenal of puns with a calling card that opened verses like a DJ drop, making his name not only indelible but unforgettable: “2 Chaaaaaaainz.” His verse on Kanye’s “Mercy” was at the absolute peak of his buzz, and he delivered a barrage of punchlines that turned dad jokes (“Ketchup to my campaign, coupe the color of mayonnaise”) into something incredibly cool. —Christopher R. Weingarten

6. Chance the Rapper on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” (2016)

Throughout his career, Kanye West has kickstarted whole careers by giving younger rappers the chance to show off: Think of Lupe Fiasco on “Touch the Sky” and Nicki Minaj on “Monster.” This time it was Chance’s turn, and the young Chicago MC delivered a star-making verse that foreshadowed both artists’ imminent pivot towards Sunday school. Chance synthesized biblical imagery and real-life autobiography to create a superhero origin story for himself: “You know that a n— was lost, I laugh in my head cuz I bet that my ex looking back like a pillar of salt.” Chance’s obsession with the minute differences between free mixtapes and purchasable albums would become much more annoying in later years after he sold those mixtapes to paid streaming services. But here it was part of an endearing narrative of struggle and mentorship: “I made ‘Sunday Candy’ I’m never going to hell, I met Kanye West I’m never going to fail. He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance 3, I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy.” This was his part, nobody else speak. —CH

5. Meek Mill – “Dreams & Nightmares” (Verse 2) (2012)

There’s not a lot of club songs that are hookless, but Meek Mill’s performance on “Dreams & Nightmares” is powerful enough to be an exception. Every serious retrospective take on this decade’s hip-hop music has to recognize that gothic instrumental switch as one of its signature moments. The gravitas of Meek Mill’s high-volume voice is one of the few that could’ve made that stick. Lungs go hoarse when verse two plays; it doesn’t just demand your attention, but your entire body. —BJ

4. Kendrick Lamar – “m.A.A.d City” (Verse 1) (2012)

As a student of both Lil Wayne’s lyrical acrobatics and Nas and Jay Z’s narrative storytelling, Kendrick Lamar is able to ingeniously make hip-hop worlds collide on a song like “m.A.A.d city”. His first verse on this 2012 cut is a cinematic memoir about his childhood in the chaos of Compton’s gang life. With jaw-dropping candor, Kendrick details the violent lifestyle that consumed his youthful innocence, all while flipping virtuosic rhyme schemes over a hair-raising trap beat. Throughout a whole decade of stunning Kendrick verses to pull from, none are as simultaneously visceral, technical, and quotable as this one. “AK’s, AR’s, ‘Ayy, ya’ll—duck!’” —Eli Enis

3. Black Thought – “#FREESTYLE087” (2017)

As modern rap grew more insular and melodic, Black Thought of the Roots launched a nearly 10-minute master class in hip-hop’s core lyrical techniques and traditions. His freestyle on Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 show mixed assonance-heavy pre-writtens with nimble improvisations, hilarious battle raps boasts with penetrating conscious imagery, shots at contemporary “mumble rappers” and shouts to classic microphone legends. Like an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo ripping out in the middle of a sea of punk rockers, it was a reminder that chops, ability, and years of study can still produce stunning work. —CW

2. Nicki Minaj on Kanye West’s “Monster” (2010)

Love him or hate him, Kanye West is a sublime tastemaker. On his best album — 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — he surrendered the greatest moment to Nicki Minaj. The most successful leaders are the ones who know not to get in their peers’ way. “50K for a verse, no album out,” she spat, in one of the decade’s biggest displays of braggadocio. She fearlessly commented on gender politics, too (“You can be the King/ But watch the Queen conquer”). And conquer the Queen did. “I’m a motherf—-g monster,” she roared, announcing herself as a rap heavyweight. —Eve Barlow

1. Kendrick Lamar on Big Sean’s “Control (Remix)” (2013)

After the release of 2012 breakthrough LP good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar was a platinum-certified, critically adored, Dr. Dre-produced sensation — but it apparently wasn’t enough. With a nearly three-minute tantrum on Big Sean’s “Control” he made a convincing argument to be crowned Greatest Rapper Alive. Lamar’s shock-and-awe campaign included flighty feats of rap gymnastics (“You’re better off tryna skydive out the exit window of five G5s with five grand/With your granddad as the pilot, he drunk as f— tryna land”) and calling out 11 rappers by name into the battlefield. —CW

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