Top 30 Hip-Hop Artists of the Decade: #10-1

As we now enter the 2020s, a lot of Hip-Hop fanatics are of course discussing who the best rappers of the 2010s were. It’s a tough task to narrow down a list to a Top 30, but here’s one of many attempts to do it. The 2010s was a challenging decade, as many artists who we consider among the greatest of all time dropped their classics in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, and didn’t have as much output in this past decade. Newer artists who just emerged may have had a stronger output in this decade than the golden age legends who inspired them.

The 2010s also saw an evolution where Hip-Hop has now overlapped with Pop music, and it’s a challenge drawing the line between great emcees who are part of Hip-Hop culture, and trendy pop stars who happen to rap. Mainstream Hip-Hop of this past decade was often defined by rappers who weren’t really focused on rapping well, with more emphasis put on melodies, adlibs, flows, emotion, vibes and waviness. While many publications aren’t drawing the distinction and pretend as if the entire underground culture doesn’t exist, this list makes an attempt to put all artists on an even playing field regardless of popularity. Despite the shift into Pop music, there were still plenty of great Hip-Hop artists in both the mainstream and underground, and this list simply attempts to acknowledge the artists who put out the best Hip-Hop music in this decade.

Continuing on!

Click here to go back to Part 1 of the countdown, with picks #30 – 21.
Click here to go back to Part 2 of the countdown, with picks #20 – 11.

Now, here are the picks for the Top 10:

*All photos taken at concerts reviewed on this blog in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, unless otherwise noted.

 

10. Inspectah Deck

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Inspectah Deck (with The Wu-Tang Clan) at MattyFest 2019 at Echo Beach

Top Albums/Projects:

1. Every Hero Needs A Villain (with Czarface, 2015)
2. Czarface (with Czarface, 2013)
3. Czarface Meets Metal Face (with Czarface & MF DOOM, 2018)
4. A Fistful of Peril (with Czarface, 2016)
5. The Saga Continues (with The Wu-Tang Clan, 2017)

Inspectah Deck was not known to have as strong of a solo discography as some of his fellow Wu-Tang Clan members, but in this last decade he was able to find new life in his career and has made some of his best music outside of his work with Wu-Tang, all in the form of Czarface. Teaming up with the Boston duo of DJ 7L & Esoteric, Deck has sounded completely rejuvenated throughout the new catalogue of albums he’s built with the group, having found a refreshed competitive spirit. Creating their own comic book superhero universe, the combination of 7L’s dramatic, cartoony production and Deck & Eso’s competitive rhyming has built a synergy that brings the best out of all artists involved. While Deck is still that dude who often stands out with his sharp rhymes and clever punchlines when rapping on Wu-Tang tracks, he’s been able to bring that appeal over to his new group and has found a niche he can thrive in. They say Wu-Tang is forever, but Deck has found himself a new brand that continues to grow with every album, action figure, and comic book released.

 

9. Esoteric

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Esoteric (with DJ 7L) at The Observatory in Santa Ana, California; photo taken from blog.gcssantaana.com

Top Albums/Projects:

1. Every Hero Needs A Villain (with Czarface, 2015)
2. Czarface (with Czarface, 2013)
3. In Death Reborn (with Army of the Pharaohs, 2014)
4. Czarface Meets Metal Face (with Czarface & MF DOOM, 2018)
5. KILLmatic (with The Demigodz, 2013)

Inspectah Deck and Esoteric go neck-and-neck when they’re rhyming together as Czarface, but one thing Eso has over Deck in this decade is his work with Army of the Pharaohs and The Demigodz. AOTP is one of the fiercest hardcore, underground groups of the last twenty years, and Esoteric stands out amongst them in a similar way to how Deck stands out amongst the Wu-Tang Clan; with sharp rhymes, clever punchlines, and intense flow. Also similar to how Czarface rejuvenated Inspectah Deck’s career, it has also given Esoteric some traction, bringing him a new brand outside of AOTP and Demigodz that allows him to branch out from strictly hardcore, and arguably gaining Eso more recognition than his solo albums. Between forming Czarface from scratch and cranking out seven albums with them, AOTP releasing three incredible albums, The Demigodz putting out their long awaited debut, and of course releasing more of his own solo albums, Esoteric had his hand in some of the best Hip-Hop the underground had to offer this decade.

 

8. Black Thought

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Black Thought (with The Roots) at the 2014 Luminato Festival in David Pecaut Square

Top Albums/Projects:

1. How I Got Over (with The Roots, 2010)
2. Streams of Thought, Vol. 2: Traxploitation (with Salaam Remi, 2018)
3. …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (with The Roots, 2014)
4. Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 (with 9th Wonder, 2018)
5. The Prestige: Jam Boy Magic (with Money Making Jam Boys, 2011)

When the decade began, Black Thought was widely known as one of the most underrated emcees ever, and it feels like for the 2010s he set out to make sure everyone rated him accordingly as one of the all-time greats. His work with The Roots throughout the ’90s and 2000s speaks for itself as one of the best, most consistently great discographies in all of Hip-Hop, but this decade is when Tariq branched out to release some solo/side projects, and also featured heavily on a lot of other artists’ songs, completely dismantling the competition. This is my personal all-time favourite emcee, as I feel he’s the dictionary definition of what an emcee is supposed to be, sounding flawless every time he raps. The only thing pushing him out of the Top 5 for the decade is the lack of music he released, as both him and The Roots spent much of the decade juggling many endeavours, including their spot on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, helping produce the acclaimed Broadway musical Hamilton and the TV documentary series Hip-Hop: The Songs That Shook America, as well as a few acting roles in TV and film.

 

7. Vinnie Paz

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Vinnie Paz at The Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver 2017; photo taken from thesnipenews.com

Top Albums/Projects:

1. In Death Reborn (with Army of the Pharaohs, 2014)
2. The Thief And The Fallen (with Jedi Mind Tricks, 2015)
3. The Cornerstone Of The Corner Store (2016)
4. The Pain Collector (2018)
5. The Bridge And The Abyss (with Jedi Mind Tricks, 2018)

Vinnie Paz has been extremely busy this decade, releasing a ton of music through several channels. This decade saw him release three new albums with the group most fans know him from, Jedi Mind Tricks, three new albums with the supergroup Army of the Pharaohs, a couple collaborative albums teamed up with ILL Bill as Heavy Metal Kings, and most notably established himself as a solo artist, releasing four solo albums (his fifth dropping this February!). Vinnie spent the decade giving fans more of that hardcore aggression they like to hear from him on his AOTP releases, while also pushing his lyrical creativity on Jedi Mind Tricks’ albums, and getting a bit personal and emotional on his solo joints. The solo albums are notable for the way they let Vinnie branch out a bit from the strictly hardcore fans know him for, rapping over break beats and collaborating with artists who may not normally fit the JMT/AOTP brand. While fans may still consider his  work with Jedi Mind Tricks from the ’90s and 2000s his best masterpieces, Vinnie has definitely kept his pen game sharp, this example here arguably being a contender for verse of the decade:

 

6. Apathy

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Apathy at The Vatican Gift Shop 2018

Top Albums/Projects:

1. The Widow’s Son (2018)
2. Handshakes With Snakes (2016)
3. KILLmatic (with The Demigodz, 2013)
4. In Death Reborn (with Army of the Pharaohs, 2014)
5. Connecticut Casual (2014)

Apathy has made great strides in his career on all fronts this decade. After temporarily leaving Army of the Pharaohs and being absent from their second album, Ap rejoined the group and was featured prominently on the three albums they released this decade, making the AOTP brand stronger. He was also a big part of putting together The Demigodz’ debut album, handling the bulk of the production himself and having some of the most standout verses. What’s made him stand out the most this decade though has been the growth he’s shown on his solo albums, building one of the dopest solo discographies in the underground and constantly improving both as a lyricist and a producer. He’s earned the respect of legends he collaborates with like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Pharoahe Monch and D.I.T.C.’s O.C. (to name a few), and has lowkey become a sampling master. He’s one of the most diverse emcees and artists in the game and while he’s been around for multiple decades, his growth as an artist made the 2010s his strongest yet.

 

5. Tech N9ne

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Tech N9ne at The Phoenix Concert Theatre 2019

Top Albums/Projects:

1. Special Effects (2015)
2. All 6’s And 7’s (2011)
3. Something Else (2013)
4. Planet (2018)
5. The Storm (2016)

Tech N9ne had himself a monster decade, releasing twelve albums and adopting his chopper style of rapping to damn near every form of music imaginable. He did it all and collaborated with everyone, with artists he worked with this decade including Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000, Lil Wayne, T.I., 2 Chainz, Logic, Hopsin, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, Busta Rhymes, and Boyz II Men, just to name a few. He’s proven that there is no type of music he cannot make, and that he will never be boxed in to any one particular sound, all while staying true to the foundations of what makes Tech N9ne Tech N9ne. He’s one of the hardest working artists there is, constantly cranking out new music and always reaching the fans with world tours every year, while also supporting the full roster of artists signed to his Strange Music label. He’s the most successful independent Hip-Hop artist of the decade, making the coveted annual Forbes list for highest earning Hip-Hop stars multiple times among the big shots like Jay-Z, Diddy, and Drake, all while putting a middle finger up to commercial radio and making the music he wants to make.

 

4. Kendrick Lamar

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Kendrick Lamar at the Air Canada Centre 2017

Top Albums/Projects:

1. Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012)
2. Section.80 (2011)
3. DAMN (2017)
4. To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
5. Black Panther Soundtrack (with T.D.E., 2018)

You’ll see Kendrick Lamar’s name come up near or at the top of many similar best-of-the-decade lists, and rightfully so. He’s been one of the biggest stars in Hip-Hop this decade, releasing multiple platinum-selling, award-winning, generation-defining albums that impacted North American culture as a whole. The accolades are endless, with him being the first/only rapper ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for his album DAMN, having one of only four Hip-Hop albums (so far) inducted into Harvard University’s prestigious library with To Pimp A Butterfly, and winning several Grammy awards across the board with all of his major-label releases. His style has evolved with each album released, going from the down-to-Earth homeboy rap on Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, to incorporating more Jazz and Funk and becoming more political on To Pimp A Butterfly, and then going out to kill all these pop-rappers at their own game with DAMN. Most emcees we consider worthy of G.O.A.T. status put out their best work within the first decade of their career, and Kendrick Lamar’s first decade was definitely strong enough to put him in the conversation.

 

3. El-P

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El-P (with Run The Jewels) at The Danforth Music Hall 2017

Top Albums/Projects:

1. RTJ2 (with Run The Jewels, 2014)
2. RTJ3 (with Run The Jewels, 2017)
3. Run The Jewels (with Run The Jewels, 2013)
4. Cancer 4 Cure (2012)

El-P may not have the same volume of output as the other artists on this list, but every single thing he touched this decade was gold, and all four of these albums could be contenders for Album of the Decade. With a more polished version of the industrial, noisy, New York style of production he’s known for, El-P started the decade off with arguably his best solo album, Cancer 4 Cure, and would only achieve new heights from there. Forming the group Run The Jewels with Killer Mike, El-P would go on to craft one of the most consistently great discographies by any rap group ever, and is the backbone behind what should be considered hands down the best rap group of the decade. Releasing their albums for free and thus avoiding the charts, Run The Jewels are bringing back that sense of anti-culture Hip-Hop once had, making music for the love of the artform with no regard for fame. For El-P, that love translates into intense attention to detail into RTJ’s unique sound, with not one second of playing time being wasted on any of their albums. The group has three masterpieces under their belt, and are going into 2020 with a highly anticipated RTJ4 album set to drop.

 

2. Killer Mike

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Killer Mike (with Run The Jewels) at the 2014 NXNE Festival in Dundas Square

Top Albums/Projects:

1. RTJ2 (with Run The Jewels, 2014)
2. RTJ3 (with Run The Jewels, 2017)
3. Run The Jewels (with Run The Jewels, 2013)
4. R.A.P. Music (with El-P, 2012)
5. PL3DGE (2011)

To repeat: every single thing El-P touched in this past decade was gold. If El-P is the backbone of Run The Jewels, then Killer Mike is the face, having the loudest voice both literally and figuratively. Along with all three of the Run The Jewels albums, Killer Mike’s last solo album, R.A.P. Music (produced entirely by El-P), is another that could be considered the best rap album of the decade, as it displays the beginnings of an incredible synergy that would eventually become RTJ while still showcasing all of what Mike stands for personally. Killer Mike brings a more blunt approach to lyricism that perfectly contrasts El-P’s unorthodox, wordier style, and he strikes the perfect balance between being comedic, competitive, and political, all while making sure his music is easily digestible and enjoyable. It’s incredible to see both Mike & El-P reach new levels of success with their unlikely pairing after making music individually for multiple decades. If I were to do a top albums of the decade list, Killer Mike & El-P would take up at least half of my top ten, because the music has just been that great and they are that consistent. I can’t wait for RTJ4!

 

1. Royce Da 5’9″

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Royce Da 5’9″ (with PRhyme) at Tattoo 2015

Top Albums/Projects:

1. PRhyme (Deluxe Edition) (with DJ Premier as PRhyme, 2015)
2. Book of Ryan (2018)
3. Tabernacle: Trust The Shooter (2016)
4. The Bar Exam 4 (2017)
5. On The House (with Slaughterhouse, 2012)

Royce Da 5’9″ underwent incredible change during this decade in terms of both career and lifestyle, going through the dismantling of the supergroup Slaughterhouse while also becoming sober during the transition to focusing more on his solo work. While he’s always been known as one of the sharpest spitters to ever come out of Detroit, arguably out-rapping Eminem throughout the Bad Meets Evil album Hell: The Sequel, and routinely holding his own within Slaughterhouse, becoming sober seemed to unlock Royce’s ability to get deeply personal and introspective with his music. His latest solo albums (Book of Ryan and Layers) play like autobiographies, as he displays a whole new skillset we didn’t know he had, vividly telling his life story, dropping jewels, and becoming more than just a sharp-rhyming battle rapper. Having opened himself up to the world this deep into his career, Royce is now truly unfuckwitable, displaying complete Zen while still going off with murderous bars whenever he wants and showing tremendous growth as an artist.

Royce’s new album The Allegory dropping soon!

 

That rounds out the Top 30! Wishing everyone a great decade as we enter the 2020s!

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