Photos (from left): Ebet Roberts/Redferns via Getty Images; Mairo Cinquetti/NurPhoto via Getty Images; Gary Miller/Getty Images; Brian Rasic/WireImage.
Songbook: Inside Neil Young's Latest Decade And Change, From 'Americana' & 'Psychedelic Pill' To 'Barn' & 'World Record'
Neil Young's resonance and relevance extends far past his '70s commercial heyday; his past decade of albums have been some of the most rich and rewarding of his career. And his GRAMMY-nominated documentary 'Barn' shows that.
In Conan O'Brien's eyes, Neil Young has done the impossible.
"He's managed to stay completely authentic and raw in a way that almost seems impossible to me," O'Brien told Howard Stern last year. "What he was doing with Buffalo Springfield in , he's still going for that. He hasn't calcified. He hasn't crusted over. He's still going for that. So that guy blows me away.”
It's not the first time Young has blown O'Brien's mind. When the two sat down for an interview a few years ago, the comedian expressed his admiration for Young's ability to "not give a s—." To which Young replied, "If somebody doesn't like something, that's just as exciting as them liking it." O'Brien's response? "My head just came off."
Such are the twin halves of the two-time GRAMMY winner's artistic journey in his 70s: indomitable will and an almost supernatural ability to brush off criticism.
Powered by undiluted passion, moral will-to-power and an unscratchable creative itch, Young is always hurtling forward, prioritizing honesty and raw feeling over all else. ("There's a lot of people who do like it, and they'll like it even more if you didn't guard the edges," Young told O'Brien in the same interview — cogent advice for every creative person in the self-censoring 2020s.)
Key figures in Young's life and career — like filmmaker Larry L.A. Johnson, pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, former wife Pegi Young, and manager Elliot Roberts — have passed away in the last decade and change; in decades past, he lost producer David Briggs and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, among so many others. These losses haven't thrown Young off the rails, but seemingly added momentum to his runaway creative train.
This alchemy — his innate ability to process trauma, negativity and loss into quantum motivation — popped up in 2019, when an anonymous fan wrote a letter to Young's quirky online newspaper, the Times-Contrarian. The fan talked about their "Uncle Eddie," concerned that the ailing 76-year-old won't live to hear all of the archival music Young promised he has in the can.
"He wants to know why you don't just put all this material out now. Just dump it all out on the NYA website," they entreated. "He wants you to know that he can't buy it if he's dead." Young sprang into action, and there's now a plethora of lost recordings out there — Homegrown, Summer Songs, Toast — with an untold ocean of music to come.
Amid the archival deluge, Young's latest decade-plus of music making has been one of the most satisfying epochs of his long career — his lyrical messages heartfelt and probing, his production raw and wooly, his electric guitar playing more twisted and brain-bending than ever.
These components of his current run are fully on display in the documentary Barn — which captures the recording process for 2021's Barn — for Best Music Film at the 2023 GRAMMYs. From that rustic jumping-off point, here's a rundown of each album, from a logical entrypoint: his first LP with Crazy Horse in 16 years.
(with Crazy Horse)
Young has long had a preoccupation with the taxonomy of song.
He tends to revisit unreleased songs — and albums — from decades ago. Diehards have murmured for years about an abandoned '70s album of songs named after well-known hits. (One contender, "Born to Run," recently emerged — it's not Springsteen's.)
Young took this to an extreme with Americana, his and the Horse's album of public-domain schoolyard bops like "Oh Susannah," "Clementine" and "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain."
Although it may be tempting to pigeonhole it as a mere on-ramp to the masterpiece that followed it, Americana aged well. The melodic swoops on "Clementine," the goofy R&B cover "Get a Job," and the barreling momentum of "Travel On" are alone worth the price of admission.
Plus, winking renditions of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" and British royal anthem "God Save the Queen" break the fourth wall, in a sense. Young isn't merely dealing in schoolyard chants, but wry commentary on what being American truly means.
Psychedelic Pill (2012)
(with Crazy Horse)
What's the greatest album Young ever made with Crazy Horse? It's logical to jump out for the first one they ever did together, 1969's Everyone Knows This is Nowhere. But it lacks the raw, wooly production everyone associates with this collaboration.
There's a case to be made for 1975's Zuma, but that discourse tends to hang on a single song: "Cortez the Killer." Same for 1979's Rust Never Sleeps, but its nature — live recordings supplemented with overdubs — muddies the waters.
Obviously, there's no objective answer. But 10 years later, it's time to introduce Psychedelic Pill into the debate. This is the Horse, unfiltered and unadulterated — and guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro's final ride with the band.
This was the year Young released his bloggy, discursive autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, and Psychedelic Pill's 27-minute(!) opening track, "Driftin' Back" reflects that in more ways than one. It's not just that he references "writing [in] his book"; over its hypnotic, chord-looping runtime, Young muses about crummy bitrates, potential paganism and his pending hip-hop hairdo.
All-time performances by the Horse roll on, married to terrific songs.
"Ramada Inn" is a pathos-laden character study of a moldering, alcoholic marriage; '80s salvage "For the Love of Man" touchingly resonates with Young's experience of raising two sons with physical disabilities; and "Walk Like a Giant" explodes Tonight's the Night's post-'60s cynicism to Godzilla proportions, complete with speaker-rattling amplifier crashes at the end.
With all genuflection to the old Horse, the band demonstrably reached peak potency in the 21st century. Kick back with something strong and meander down this twisted road.
A Letter Home (2014)
Young recorded A Letter Home in Jack White's Voice-o-Graph vinyl recording booth, where a signal is translated directly into vinyl, to primitive-sounding results. It's all covers.
While classics like Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country," Willie Nelson's "Crazy" and Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe" are certainly luminous, the most emotionally heart-stopping moment comes at the very beginning, when Young dictates a message to his mother in heaven.
"Hi mom! Hey, it's great to be able to talk to you," Young exclaims through moon-landing-grade audio. I haven't been able to talk to you in a really long time, and my friend Jack has got this box that I can talk to you from."
"So, I'd like to be able to send you this message and tell you how much I love you and also tell you that I think you should start talking to Daddy again," he continues. "Since you're both there together, there's no reason not to talk.”
Young rambles on to his mom about "weatherman" Al Gore from there, but it's the following track that hits the solar plexus. He then covers Phil Ochs' "Changes," which should resonate with anyone who's lost a parent. In this damaged and warped presentation, it's almost unbearably moving to hear.
"Your tears will be trembling, now we're somewhere else/ One last cup of wine we will pour," Young croons through brambles of distortion, seemingly reporting from another plane of existence. "And I'll kiss you one more time, and leave you on the rolling river shores of changes."
The rest of this unconventional covers album rolls on; whether you can roll with the "production" for its entire runtime comes down to the ears of the beholder. But that intro, leading into "Changes," comprises the beating heart of A Letter Home.
There's much more than technological gimmickry at play. Through the lens of "Changes," the fuzz is a metaphor for distance and loss.
Young followed A Letter Home with its polar opposite, fidelity-speaking: Storytone, where every one of its earnest tracks was augmented with an orchestra or big band.
This maximalism should be no surprise to the Young-initiated; his orchestra-abetted tracks, like "A Man Needs a Maid" and "Such a Woman," are proof positive of such.
That said, no Young album has felt quite this Hollywood; even as the gorgeous "Plastic Flowers" recalls the classic "After the Gold Rush" with its yearning melody, the string embellishments take center stage. Ditto the romping big band on "I Want to Drive My Car," which pushes the simple, bluesy composition into deep Vegas territory.
Upon its release, Young seemed fascinated by how he could pull Storytone in different directions. Not only did he release the embellished and unembellished versions; we have Mixed Pages of Storytone, which shuffles the tracklist and offers a bit of both.
Whatever your Storytone is, the songs are cozy and livable — and reflect the dawn of a new love. (The singer began dating his now-wife, actress and filmmaker Daryl Hannah, that year.)
The Monsanto Years (2015)
(with Promise of the Real)
Young has a long track record of being shaken to his core by a cause, writing in haste and rushing into the studio.
He did it back in 1970 with Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Ohio," their outrage bomb about the Kent State shootings. And he did it in 2006 with the raw and immediate Living With War, which takes shots at Dubya and the war machine.
This time, agrochemical and agricultural biotech company Monsanto is in the crosshairs, and Young's got new aural weaponry: Promise of the Real, a band helmed by Willie Nelson's sons Lukas and Micah, who actually named themselves after Young's song "Walk On."
Whatever your feelings on the company are — last year, they pled guilty to 30 environmental crimes — these songs about corporate avarice and food transparency ring true.
And tunes like "People Want to Hear About Love," "Workin' Man" and "Rules of Change" capture the fire of Psychedelic Pill. "No one owns the sacred seed/ No man's law can change that," Young seethes in the latter song, cutting to the heart of the matter.
Peace Trail (2016)
Despite its stripped-down presentation — Young, bassist Paul Bushnell and drummer Jim Keltner — Peace Trail might be one of Young's most avant-garde albums. In a great way.
Instead of landing somewhere near 2000's rootsy (and vastly underrated) Silver and Gold, Peace Trail feels nervy and unpolished, like the trio is recording it in first takes in your garage. (The scrawled album cover adds to the effect.)
The songs are some of Young's strongest of his current run; "Can't Stop Workin'" is an ode to imaginary-gun-to-your-head prolificity that would make Robert Pollard proud, and the smoldering "Show Me" recalls 1994's nocturnal Sleeps With Angels.
All the while, Bushnell leans back; Keltner often does the opposite. He doesn't merely keep time; he responds to Young's lines like Rashied Ali to John Coltrane on Interstellar Space.
Throw in some Auto-Tune, computer chatter and possible references to Amazon's Alexa, and you've got a wonderfully strange entry in Young's recent oeuvre.
Often, the worn and craggy Peace Trail — in all its sonic imperfections and needling political commentary — amounts to Young's private war against the dehumanizing technocratic age.
The Visitor (2017)
(with Promise of the Real)
In 2017, Young beamed us back to 1976 with the long-lost archival album, Hitchhiker. Under a full moon in the late summer, a crossfaded Young sits alone in a Malibu studio, with David Briggs at the helm, and cuts a slew of future classics: "Pocahontas," "Powderfinger," "Campaigner." It's luminous.
Three months later, Young slammed his fans back into Trump-dominated, Twitter-poisoned reality with The Visitor, his second studio turn with Promise of the Real. The tunes deal with the nature of American-ness ("Already Great") and the rising of the young generation ("Children of Destiny").
When you get past the era-specific topicality, though, there's much to explore. "Almost Always" does mention a certain "game show host," its revisitation of the riff to his '90s tune "Unknown Legend" suggests there was more emotional terrain to trawl there.
Plus, there's no precedent in his vast catalog for something like "Carnival," a Tom Waits-level-bizarre excursion that rolls past the eight-minute mark. And the slow sunset of closing track "Forever" shows that Young still excels in the long form; his knack for hypnosis hasn't left him.
(with Crazy Horse)
In 2018, old compatriot Nils Lofgren replaced guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampredo in Crazy Horse; he had appeared on old classics like After the Gold Rush and Tonight's the Night, so he was the logical choice. His first outing as a proper Horseman was the following year's Colorado, recorded at 9,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains — as captured touchingly and hysterically in the documentary Mountaintop.
At this point, Young's ecological concerns became even more of a focal point in his writing. But while a lesser writer would hector and lecture, Young is crucially able to turn this topic in the light and capture new facets every time.
"She Showed Me Love" frames this issue as a matter of betrayal; Mother Nature gave Young everything he has. "I saw old white guys trying to kill mother nature!" he reports in the stormy rocker; his anger spirals into the transfixing, endlessly repeating coda, where the Horse enter one of their trademark reveries.
While "Shut it Down" is like shattered glass against a wall, Colorado is, on the main, one of the Horse's gentler offerings. "Green is Blue," "Milky Way" and "I Do" are some of his most subtle and simmering songs in years.
But the arguable centerpiece is "Olden Days," for completely different reasons. It doesn't mention climate collapse at all; rather, it's about the people Young has loved and lost to death. "Something happened yesterday/ I need to talk to you," he sings in his fragile falsetto, seemingly singing to any and all of his late friends and colleagues.
And even though it's from the perspective of another character, it's bracing to hear the artist who arguably cares more than any other, singing these three resigned words: "Nothing matters anyway."
(with Crazy Horse)
Young used to walk away from the Horse for years between albums; now, we're on a roll, one that seems to continue unabated. Just as Colorado was recorded in Colorado, Barn was made in a barn; it's another case of Young's experimentation with location-specific vibes.
Within those century-old timber walls, Young sings of humanity making it work during challenging times — the "children of the fires and floods" navigating a global pandemic and a half-dozen other calamities.
"Masked people walking everywhere," he notes in "Song of the Seasons," accompanied by Lofgren's rustic accordion. "It's humanity in my sights." Performances of all these songs and behind-the-scenes footage appear in the documentary of the same name, which is nominated for Best Music Film at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Elsewhere, Young addresses his recent American citizenship ("Canerican"), turns in another winning example of his noir-ish slow burners ("They Might Be Lost") and stretches out on the chills-inducing, eight-minute "Welcome Back."
Fans of the Horse at their most extreme might bemoan the quick runtimes; most of the tunes are four-and-a-half minutes or shorter. But Barn shows they excel in this economical setting. Best of all, they've proven to remain a potent force for good in a battered world.
World Record (2022)
(with Crazy Horse)
Three Horse albums in about as many years — there's no precedent for this.
Produced by Rick Rubin and recorded live in the studio, the production puts you right there on the studio floor; the interstitial chatter and noodlings weren't cut, but preserved.
Darker and more hymnal than Barn, World Record carries a tint of desperation, often throwing poetry aside in favor of ultra-direct pleas for reconciliation. In "The World (Is In Trouble Now)," Young grinds out the title chorus over gnarled knots of accordion. "No more war/ Only love," he and his accompanists keen in "Walkin' on the Road (To the Future)."
Fans who wished for longer songs than on Barn might have to wait a little longer; these runtimes are tight too. But the majestic, 15-minute workout "Chevrolet" should assuage any concerns.
Plus, the other tracks show Young's way with a haunting melody remains undimmed; the halting, ascendant bridge to "Overhead" and companionable chorus to "This Old Planet (Changing Days)" are unforgettable.
Wherever these changing days ultimately lead us — to reclamation or disaster — let it be known that a 77-year-old Young has been a warning bell, a balm and a light in the universe.
Photos: Baeth; Jeff Hahne/Getty Images; Elena Di Vincenzo Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images; Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage; courtesy of KQ Entertainment; Dan Monick; Manny Carabel/WireImage; Prince Williams/WireImage
15 Must-Hear Albums This December: ATEEZ, Nicki Minaj, Neil Young & More
Just in time to soundtrack your festivities and welcome in an inspiring new year, press play on these 15 releases from Peter Gabriel, Tate McRae, Alicia Keys and others.
December is a time for rejoicing and reflecting. How did this year go? And what will come next? As we look back on the meteoric 2023 and start planning for 2024, there’s a sundry of new music to usher in this journey.
This month, artists like Alicia Keys and the Killers will celebrate 20-year anniversaries with The Diary Of Alicia Keys 20 and Rebel Diamonds, respectively. Others will bring forth much-awaited sequels, like Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday 2 and Chief Keef’s Almighty So 2. Adding to that, live performances by Pink and Khruangbin will get immortalized, while rising star Tate McRae will release her sophomore effort, Think Later, and Dove Cameron will debut Alchemical: Vol. 1.
Below is a guide to all the must-hear releases of December 2023, just in time to soundtrack your festivities and welcome in an inspiring new year. Read on for big releases from ATEEZ, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young, and more.
Dove Cameron - Alchemical: Vol. 1
Release date: Dec. 1
Following Dove Cameron's viral, platinum-certified 2022 hit "Boyfriend," expectations were high for the artist's first studio album. The singer and actress will release Alchemical: Vol. 1 at the top of the month.
"I wrote Volume 1 during a period of deep healing and space to process that I had never given myself. I hope you feel yourself in these songs as much as I do. Part 1: tear down. Part 2: rebuild," the singer shared on Instagram, teasing Vol. 2 of the collection (release date yet to be announced).
A follow-up to Cameron’s 2019 debut EP Bloodshot / Waste, Vol. 1 features eight tracks. Aside from "Boyfriend," she has revealed singles "Breakfast," "Lethal Woman," and "Sand," building up a sultry sound and an alluring mystique that prompt her as one to watch.
Dillon Francis - This Mixtape Is Fire TOO
Release date: Dec. 1
Eight years after This Mixtape Is Fire, Dillon Francis' latest "turned out better than I could have ever imagined," the DJ and producer shared on Instagram about his forthcoming album, This Mixtape Is Fire TOO.
"The whole goal of this album was to make amazing songs with artists I love and respect," he added. The 14-track record features several 2022 singles, such as "Free" with Alesso and Clementine Douglas, "LA On Acid" with Good Times Ahead, "Pretty People" with INJI, "Don't Let Me Let Go" with Illenium and Evan Giia and "buttons!" with Knock2.
Aside from collaborating with some of dance music’s biggest names, Francis seems intent on having fun. His latest single, "I’m My Only Friend" with Arden Jones, demonstrates that by pairing up his characteristic high-octane beats with an amusing music video featuring actor Billy Zane in an impromptu road trip adventure.
ATEEZ - THE WORLD EP.FIN: WILL
Release date: Dec. 1
K-pop’s favorite pirates ATEEZ are getting ready to release their second Korean full album: THE WORLD EP.FIN: WILL. The record will conclude the trilogy that began with EPs The World EP.1: Movement and The World EP.2: Outlaw.
With a slew of teaser pictures and a mysterious black-and-white trailer, the eight-member boy band continues to further their lore and leave fans eager to decipher their next chapters. In addition, a tracklist and an instrumental preview of the album’s upcoming 12 songs, including title track "Crazy Form," were revealed, promising exciting twists to their thunderous beats.
EP.FIN: WILL also brings a surprise in its unit and solo songs, all with lyrics co-written by the members: Jongho brings his powerful vocals to "Everything," "Youth" is a duet by Mingi and Yunho, "It’s You" is performed by Yeosang, San, and Wooyoung, and "MATZ" is the long-awaited collaboration between the band’s two eldest members, Hongjoong and Seonghwa.
Khruangbin - Live at Sydney Opera House
Release date: Dec. 1
After a yearlong series of live albums in partnership with other artists (Toro y Moi, Men I Trust, Nubia Garcya and others), Khruangbin will close out 2023 with the upcoming Live at Sydney Opera House — this time on their own.
The double LP was recorded in November 2022, and compiles their three-night residency at one of Australia’s most prestigious venues. With the announcement, the Texas trio also shared a new version of their 2015 hit, "People Everywhere (Shifting Sands Remix)."
The setlist also includes classics like "So We Won’t Forget," "A Calf Born in Winter" and "Friday Morning," attesting to the band’s expertise in highlighting the best of their career while giving tracks a fresh, unexpected spin.
Alicia Keys - The Diary Of Alicia Keys 20
Release date: Dec. 1
The end-of-year celebrations will start early for Alicia Keys and her fans. On Dec. 1, the 15-time GRAMMY winner will release a special version of her multiplatinum sophomore album, The Diary of Alicia Keys, in order to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
The 2023 LP will feature 24 tracks, including nine bonus songs including the previously unreleased "Golden Child." Keys also uprezzed four music videos from that era on YouTube: "Karma," "You Don’t Know My Name," "If I Ain’t Got You" and the live version of "Diary" with Tony! Toni! Toné! and Jermaine Paul.
To make the milestone even more special, Keys will perform the full album in an intimate, one-night-only concert at New York’s Webster Hall on the day of release. A portion of the earnings will be donated to the nonprofit organization she co-founded in 2003, Keep a Child Alive.
Peter Gabriel - i/o
Release date: Dec. 1
During every full moon this year, Peter Gabriel unveiled a new track off his upcoming studio album, i/o. It was a clever way to compensate fans for a lengthy wait. i/o is Gabriel’s first LP of new and original content since 2002’s Up, and has been in the works for almost three decades.
"I’m very happy to see all these new songs back together on the good ship i/o and ready for their journey out into the world," the British singer said in a press release. With 12 tracks "of grace, gravity and great beauty," the album tackles themes like the passage of time, grief and injustice, but never gives up on hope. Each track comes in three versions: the Bright-Side Mix by Mark ‘Spike’ Stent, the Dark-Side Mix by Tchad Blake, and the In-Side Mix by Hans-Martin Buff.
Gabriel also spent a good part of 2023 on the i/o Tour across Europe and North America. Attendees were lucky to witness the album played in full and some of the singer’s biggest hits, as well as the unreleased track "What Lies Ahead."
Atmosphere - Talk Talk EP
Release date: Dec. 1
From "Talk Talk (feat. Bat Flower)," a track off Atmosphere’s May album So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously, comes Talk Talk EP. According to a press release, the Minneapolis duo was so captivated by that song’s "vaguely alien and deeply human" sounds that they had to develop it into a ten-track deep dive.
In the album, rapper Slug and DJ/producer Ant "dart across threads of space-time" and become "titans of the electro-rap that was foundational to their youths," citing names like Kraftwerk and Egyptian Lover as inspirations. The press release also mentions that Talk Talk EP is a testament to rap’s connection to electronic music of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
That statement rings true, for instance, in the two singles they have released so far, aside from "Talk Talk": the sparkly "Rotary Telephone," and the haunting album closer, "Traveling Forever."
Pink - Trustfall Tour Deluxe Edition
Release date: Dec. 1
Following the smashing success of her ninth studio album, February’s Trustfall, and of her back-to-back Summer Carnival stadium tour and Trustfall arena tour this year, pop giant Pink will wrap it all up with the release of Trustfall Tour Deluxe Edition on Dec. 1.
The special record features six live recordings (from Summer Carnival), including "Cover Me in Sunshine" with her daughter Willow Sage Hart, as well as covers of Sade’s "No Ordinary Love" and Sinead O’Connor’s "Nothing Compares 2 U," with Brandi Carlile. It also includes July’s protest song "Irrelevant" and two new singles: "Dreaming" with Marshmello and Sting and "All Out of Fight."
As the unstoppable artist that she is, Pink has already announced a slew of 2024 Summer Carnival tour dates for Oceania in February and March, and the U.K. and Europe throughout June and July.
Tate McRae - Think Later
Release date: Dec. 8
"Here’s to 20 years old and figuring who the f[—] i am," celebrated rising sensation Tate McRae wrote on Instagram. Writing her sophomore album, Think Later, was "one of the most stressful, exciting, nerve racking, and fun things I’ve ever gone through. For the first time in my life I lived this year a little less with my head and a little more with my intuition — and I [really] hope [you] guys can feel that through the music," she added.
Produced by Ryan Tedder, the album dives into "the all-too-relatable feelings of falling in love and embracing the raw emotions that you experience as a result of leading with your intuition and heart," according to a press release. It is preceded by singles "Greedy" — of recent TikTok fame — and "Exes."
The Canadian singer has also announced an eponymous tour in support of the new album. McRae will visit Europe and North America from April to August 2024, bringing it to a close in Oceania throughout November.
Nicki Minaj - Pink Friday 2
Release date: Dec. 8
After several postponements, rap superstar Nicki Minaj is celebrating her birthday by bringing Pink Friday 2 to the world. The much-expected release marks Minaj’s first studio album since 2018’s Queen.
The album is a sequel to her acclaimed debut, 2010’s Pink Friday, and is supported by two singles, "Super Freaky Girl" and "Last Time I Saw You." During an Instagram Live on Oct. 24, as reported by People, Minaj shared that "this entire album will be the biggest gift I have ever given humanity thus far. I can stand by that. I will bet any amount of money that Pink Friday 2, the album, is going to make people fall in love immediately."
The Trinidadian American icon recently announced a 2024 tour in North America and Europe. Exact dates are yet to be announced, but the commotion was such that Minaj’s fandom, Barbz, crashed her website upon hearing the news.
The Killers - Rebel Diamonds
Release date: Dec. 8
It’s been almost 20 years since the Killers burst into the rock scene with their 2004 debut Hot Fuss. To honor that achievement, the Las Vegas band will release Rebel Diamonds, a compilation of 20 hits encompassing all their seven LPs, plus new track "Spirit."
In the tracklist, fans will be able to take a trip down memory lane with singles like "Mr. Brightside," "When You Were Young," and "Human," among other classics. "See, it’s been said that what’s remembered, lives," frontman Brandon Flowers said in a trailer for the album. "And we’ve racked up stadiums full of memories the past 20 years, enough to fill lifetimes."
Flowers continued: "It sounds a bit like Bowie. Or is it Brando? Or maybe it's somewhere in between? It always is with us. And to our legion of victims, thank you, thank you, thank you. And do not fear. There is more mining to be done." The Killers released another best of in 2013, Direct Hits.
Neil Young - Before and After
Release date: Dec. 8
"Songs from my life, recently recorded, create a music montage with no beginnings or endings." That’s how folk legend Neil Young described his upcoming 45th studio album, Before and After, in a press statement.
The record spans a collection of 13 solo acoustic re-recordings among Young’s favorites in his catalog. The statement adds that "each of the songs blend and create one continuous flow, clocking in at a 48-minute pure and intimate listening experience," with Young summarizing it as an experience where "the feeling is captured, not in pieces, but as a whole piece — designed to be listened to that way."
Young also co-produced and co-mixed the record, which includes the previously-unreleased track "If You Got Love," among classics such as 1966’s "Burned," 1970’s "Birds" and 1994’s "A Dream That Can Last." Before and After is the latest in a series of archival releases by Young, arriving just a few months after "lost" album Chrome Dreams.
Car Seat Headrest - Faces From the Masquerade
Release date: Dec. 8
In March 2022, indie band Car Seat Headrest was playing a three-night residency at New York’s Brooklyn Steel. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they asked the audience to mask up, but also to "accoutre yourself in whatever further costumery you please" for an evening of "music, dancing, and identity loss," according to a press release.
The result of that experience is Faces From the Masquerade, CSH’s upcoming double album that will bring the magic of those nights to the world. "The 2022 Masquerade was a crazy tour that ignited with a particular ferocity once we touched ground on the east coast," said vocalist Will Toledo in a statement. "Our time in New York captures that momentary magic where we’re playing at our peak and the crowd is responding as one giant body."
Faces From the Masquerade features 14 of the band’s best tracks as rearranged, revamped live versions — for example, "Deadlines" went through adjustments "to turn it into the climactic dance monster it always wanted to be," added Toledo. The record has been described as "simultaneously a joyride through the greatest hits and a conversation with the devoted and ever-growing following that has formed around the band, their songs and live communions."
Michael Nau - Accompany
Release date: Dec. 8
Multihyphenate Michael Nau has been building an extensive indie discography since the mid-’00s, both as the frontman of bands Cotton Jones and Page France and as a soloist. Next month, he will add on to that by releasing his fifth studio album, Accompany.
The album came to be when producer Adrien Olsen (the Killers, Lucy Dacus) invited Nau to record at his Richmond, Virginia studio. "I didn’t have much of a plan before Adrien reached out, so I wrote some songs specifically for the session," Nau explained in a release. "It had been a while since I’d made music in a room with other people. We just sort of started playing and didn’t really talk about what was happening."
The record's 11 tracks "come together to paint a beautiful picture" with imaginative lyrics that manage to be "introspective, but vague and open-ended. Nau recently announced tour dates across the U.S. from February to April 2024.
Chief Keef - Almighty So 2
Release date: Dec. 15
Rumors about Almighty So 2, the sequel to Chief Keef’s revered 2013 mixtape of the same name, have been going on since 2018. The Chicago drill pioneer went as far as teasing the cover art on Instagram in 2019 — only to spend years without further updates. In any case, it seems like the wait is finally over: Almighty So 2 is scheduled to drop on Dec. 15.
In the beginning of November, Keef shared two new cover arts for the album on Instagram, under the caption "2 real soon." While there’s no further info, the album will feature 17 tracks, including 2022 singles "Tony Montana Flow" and "Racks Stuffed Inna Couch," according to Apple Music.
Almighty So 2 is Chief Keef’s fifth studio album, arriving after 2021’s 4NEM. Recently, the rapper was featured on the track "All The Parties" off Drake’s latest album, For All The Dogs. This collaboration increased speculations about a possible Drake feature on Keef’s album as well — the latter commented "Don’t forget them vocals, crody" on Drake’s Instagram back in August.
Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images
A Brief History Of Hip-Hop At 50: Rap's Evolution From A Bronx Party To The GRAMMY Stage
Aug. 11, 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. To honor the legacy and influence of this now global culture, GRAMMY.com presents a timeline marking the genre's biggest moments.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, a cultural movement that rose from humble beginnings in New York to fuel a worldwide phenomenon.
Scholars may debate whether its roots precede Aug. 11, 1973, when DJ Kool Herc debuted his "merry-go-round" technique of playing funk breaks back-to-back to a roomful of teenagers in the Bronx. However, there’s little doubt that this event sparked a flowering of activity throughout the borough, inspiring DJs, breakdancers, graffiti artists, and, eventually, pioneering MCs like Coke La Rock and Cowboy.
The music industry eventually caught wind of the scene, leading to formative 1979 singles like the Fatback Band’s "King Tim III" — the funk band featured MC and hypeman Timothy "King Tim III" Washington — and the big one: the Sugarhill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight."
Today, rap music is the most popular genre of music, led by superstars such as Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Future, Eminem, and many others. Despite its massive success, many artists retain their strong ties to communities of color, reflecting the genre’s origins as a form rooted in the streets.
To mark hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, press play on the playlist below, or head to Amazon Music, Apple Music and Pandora for a crash course in this quintessential stateside artform — further proof of the genius of Black American music.
At the 65th Annual GRAMMY Awards, the Recording Academy showcased the breadth of hip-hop's influence via a star-studded, generation-spanning performance. Curated by Questlove and featuring legends such as Grandmaster Flash, Run-D.M.C., Ice-T, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, Nelly, and GloRilla, the 2023 GRAMMYs' hip-hop tribute showed that hip-hop remains one of the most exciting music cultures — and will likely remain so for the next 50 years.
A Timeline Of Hip-Hop's Development
1973 – On Aug. 11, 1973, Clive "Kool Herc" Campbell DJs a back-to-school party organized by his sister, Cindy Campbell, in the rec room at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, New York. The event is widely considered to be the beginning of hip-hop culture.
1979 – Longtime R&B star and producer Sylvia Robinson launches Sugar Hill Records with her husband, Joe. She discovers their first act in New Jersey, a trio of rapping teenagers — Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee — and brands the Sugarhill Gang. The Gang’s first single, "Rapper’s Delight," sells millions of copies and becomes the first global rap hit.
1982 – Co-written by Duke Bootee and Melle Mel and produced by Clifton "Jiggs" Chase, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s hit single "The Message" becomes a turning point in the genre. Bootee and Melle Mel’s stark descriptions of poverty signal to fans and critics that hip-hop is capable of more than just party music.
1984 – Russell Simmons’ Rush Management organizes Fresh Fest, a groundbreaking arena tour featuring hot rap acts like Run-D.M.C., Whodini, Kurtis Blow, the Fat Boys, and Newcleus as well as b-boy crews such as the Dynamic Breakers. Held during the next two years, it signifies hip-hop’s growing popularity.
1986 – After bringing frat-boy chaos as the opening act on Madonna’s Virgin Tour, Def Jam understudies the Beastie Boys collaborate with producer Rick Rubin on Licensed to Ill. Spawning the hit single "Fight for Your Right," the album is certified diamond in 2015.
Beastie Boys in 1987 | Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
1987 – Thanks to a remix by the late DJ/producer Cameron Paul, rap trio Salt-N-Pepa get teens everywhere twerking — and worry parents and school administrators — with the electro-bass classic, "Push It."
1988 – Public Enemy release their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Reportedly featuring over 100 samples and focused on Chuck D, Flavor Flav and Professor Griff’s revolutionary lyrics, it’s often cited as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.
1988 – Thanks to lyrics criticizing law enforcement and depicting raw life in Compton, California, N.W.A spark national controversy with their influential second album, Straight Outta Compton.
1991 – Ice-T appears in New Jack City, becoming one of the first rappers to headline a major Hollywood film. That same year, he appears on the Lollapalooza tour with his metal group, Body Count, and performs an early version of "Cop Killer." The song becomes a flashpoint in the 1992 presidential election.
1993 – Wu-Tang Clan release their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). With nine members led by rapper/producer the RZA, the highly unique Staten Island-based collective spawned dozens of solo albums and affiliated acts over the following decades.
1996 – After dominating most of 1996 with his fourth album, the diamond-certified double album All Eyez on Me, 2Pac is killed in Las Vegas. The unsolved murder of one of the greatest rappers of all time remains a watershed moment in music culture.
1997 – Days before the release of his diamond-certified second album, Life After Death, the Notorious B.I.G. is killed in Los Angeles. The slaying of two of hip-hop’s biggest artists prompts soul-searching across the music industry and inspired Biggie’s friend, Puff Daddy, to release the GRAMMY Award-winning hit, "I'll Be Missing You."
1997 – After writing and producing hits for MC Lyte and Aaliyah, Missy Elliott debuts as a solo artist with Supa Dupa Fly. With production help from Timbaland and kinetic music videos, Elliott establishes herself as one of the most innovative acts of the era.
Missy Elliott | Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images
1998 – After scoring multi-platinum hits with the Fugees, Lauryn Hill strikes out on her own with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The diamond-certified album earns her several GRAMMY Awards, including Album Of The Year.
1999 – Dr. Dre releases 2001, cementing his legacy as one of the most influential rap producers ever. The album features numerous collaborators, including longtime homie Snoop Dogg and rising lyricist Eminem.
2001 – On Sept. 11, Jay-Z releases his sixth album, The Blueprint. It becomes a career highlight for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame rapper, and a breakout moment for rising producers Just Blaze and Kanye West.
2003 – Hit-making duo OutKast split their double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below into separate sides for Big Boi and Andre 3000 — the latter focusing on singing instead of rapping. Their fresh approach results in a diamond-certified project and a GRAMMY for Album Of The Year.
2008 – Lil Wayne mania peaks with Tha Carter III, which sells over 1 million copies in its first week and earns him a GRAMMY for Best Rap Album.
2010 – Nicki Minaj releases Pink Friday. The hit album makes her a rare female rap star during a dearth of prominent women voices in the genre.
2017 – By landing a Top 10 Billboard hit with "XO Tour Llif3" and topping the Billboard 200 with Luv Is Rage 2, Lil Uzi Vert signifies the rise of internet-fueled trends like "SoundCloud rap" and "emo rap."
2017 – With his fourth album Damn., Kendrick Lamar not only wins a GRAMMY for Best Rap Album, but he also becomes the first rap artist to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music, leading to the fanciful nickname "Pulitzer Kenny."
2018 – Cardi B releases her debut album Invasion of Privacy, scoring Billboard No. 1 hits such as "Bodak Yellow" and "I Like It." As the best-selling female rap album of the 2010s, the LP won Best Rap Album at the 61st GRAMMY Awards in 2019, making Cardi the first solo female rapper to win the Category.
Cardi B at the 61st GRAMMY Awards | Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
2020 – In early 2020, rising star Pop Smoke is killed in Los Angeles. Months later, his posthumous debut album, Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, tops the charts, signifying the rise of drill as a major force in hip-hop culture.
2021 – At the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards in 2021, the Recording Academy introduced the Best Melodic Rap Performance Category, formerly known as the Best Rap/Sung Performance Category, to "represent the inclusivity of the growing hybrid performance trends within the rap genre."
2023 - At the 2023 GRAMMY Awards, seven-time GRAMMY winner Dr. Dre became the recipient of the inaugural Dr. Dre Global Impact Award for his multitude of achievements through his innovative, multi-decade career. Dre was first presented with the award at the Black Music Collective's Recording Academy Honors ceremony.
Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images
Inside The Alternate Universe Of Neil Young's 'Chrome Dreams'
Neil Young's 'Chrome Dreams' was shelved in 1977; nine of its 12 tunes made it to ensuing albums. How would its release have altered Young's creative arc?
In the mid-2000s, Neil Young dropped an artifact at fans' doorsteps that was strange even by his standards. It was a new album, Chrome Dreams II — a sequel to that titular album from 1977. The wrinkle? That album didn't exist.
Well, not officially. While perplexed consumers wondered if they'd been unwitting recipients of the Mandela Effect, Chrome Dreams was a known quantity to the heads.
As Jimmy McDonough explained in his 2002 biography of Young, Shakey, Chrome Dreams was an acetate — a proposal of what his next album could be. It even had a cover: a sketch by producer David Briggs of the front end of a '55 Chrysler, blending into a woman's face.
But Chrome Dreams wasn't to be; what the public got was 1977's rowdy, eclectic American Stars 'n Bars. Despite containing the classic "Like a Hurricane" among other luminous deep cuts like "Star of Bethlehem," American Stars 'n Bars feels more like a mixtape than a proper album. McDonough himself called it a "haphazard snapshot."
As part of a deluge of archival releases, Chrome Dreams is finally available in its original form as of Aug. 11. Despite being shelved, most of Chrome Dreams' 12 tunes made it to the public, in one form or another; many of them became bona fide Young classics.
Five tracks destined for Chrome Dreams made it on American Stars 'n Bars, including "Star of Bethlehem" and "Homegrown." "Pocahontas," "Sedan Delivery" and "Powderfinger" appeared on Rust Never Sleeps two years later. A handful of others would surface on various albums, culminating with "Stringman" on 1993's Unplugged.
Now that Chrome Dreams II has a I, a tantalizing question arises: if this album came out as planned, how would Young's discography be fundamentally altered? In some instances, it wouldn't be too far gone. In others, everything would change.
From Homegrown to Hitchhiker to Toast — from 1975, 1976 and 2000-2001, respectively — Young's long-shelved, recently revealed albums have proven to be inextricably linked to the ones we all know.
As such, they provide fascinating windows into his creative process — as well as what-ifs to puzzle over. Here's a guide to every song on Chrome Dreams, and how Young's discography would change if they were initially released in this form.
We've heard this non-overdubbed "Pocahontas" before.
In 2017, Young released the stunning Hitchhiker, a document of a single session in 1976, when Young terminated a tour with Stephen Stills, celebrating the 10th anniversary of their band Buffalo Springfield.
Under a full moon, he holed up in Briggs' Malibu studio with various intoxicants, and ran through some recent songs, alone and unadorned. Despite the bracing intimacy of this setting, Reprise executives shrugged it off as a collection of demos.
If "Pocahontas" had been released on Chrome Dreams, could it still have appeared on Rust Never Sleeps, perhaps in a different format? Unlikely, as that was an album of new material; a tune from just two years prior would have been a sore thumb.
A Rust Never Sleeps without "Pocahontas" would be one with a crucial chunk missing; it's one of the most evocative songs he ever penned, bar none. And it's difficult to think of a potential replacement on its level.
"Will to Love"
The inclusion of "Will to Love" on American Stars 'n Bars accentuates that album's aggressively piecemeal vibe.
There's no analog for "Will to Love" anywhere in his catalog. A seven-minute ballad recorded in front of Young's crackling fireplace, the lo-fi oddity recounts the journey of a trout upstream as a cosmic metaphor. (Critics remain divided; some believe it's one of his most majestic songs, others dismiss it as an indulgent mess.)
On Chrome Dreams, "Will to Love" fits a bit more snugly amid the acoustic material; on American Stars 'n Bars, it's an ugly duckling.
Without five Chrome Dreams tunes on it — three of them the most substantial on the album — American Stars 'n Barscould have succeeded, and perhaps been more consistent, as an album of barroom-ready ragers.
"Star of Bethlehem"
"Star of Bethlehem" was slated for a previously shelved album: Homegrown — recorded in 1974 and 1975, unreleased until 2020.
Because that album didn't see the light of day, the inclusion of "Star of Bethlehem" on Chrome Dreams — and on his 1977 compilation album Decade — would arguably leave its history unaltered.
"Like a Hurricane"
Whether this Young classic was released on Chrome Dreams or another '70s album would be beside the point.
The legacy of this majestic rocker isn't its inclusion on American Stars 'n Bars, but its windswept majesty — especially live. (Its versatility, too; the solo rendition on Unplugged, performed on pump organ, is unforgettable.)
"Too Far Gone"
On Freedom, Young's late-'80s comeback album addressing Reagan-era urban decay, "Too Far Gone" is a throwback; he'd originally recorded it in 1975, with Crazy Horse guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro on mandolin.
The song, about the fallout from a chemical-fueled tryst, fit Freedom like a glove; it works perfectly along seedy yarns like "Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero Part I)." Freedom could have been basically intact without it, but its messaging would lose a personal edge.
"Hold Back the Tears"
Fitting with the rest of side A, the version of "Hold Back the Tears" on American Stars 'n Bars has a lovesick, rootsy quality, deepened by Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson on backing vocals.
On Chrome Dreams, it's starker and more eye-to-eye — just Young alone, harmonizing with himself, a little keyboard and percussion filling out the soundfield.
Both versions are terrific, but if this demo-like take was the released version — without Ronstadt and Larson behind him to really sell it — something would be missing.
In any form, "Homegrown" is a mirthful, stoned trifle; paradoxically, it would have served as the title track to one of Young's most revealing and personal albums.
The Chrome Dreams version — the one with Crazy Horse — is the one available for decades on American Stars 'n Bars; whichever album it appeared on would be irrelevant to its legacy.
That said, the version initially slated to appear on Homegrown is a wonder — on that later take, Young's backed by Tim Drummond of the Stray Gators, go-to lap slide guitarist Ben Keith, and Karl Himmel, who frequently backed Young throughout the decade.
Where the Horse version of "Homegrown" is a goofy romp, the later version is slippery and strange, befitting an ode to marijuana; if that one had come out, it may have stuck in the craw more.
The version of "Captain Kennedy" on Hawks and Doves is the same one on Hitchhiker and Chrome Dreams — they all come from that single, stony session with Briggs.
Excised from the lumpy and politically contradictory Hawks and Doves, it would be a pleasing enigma — Young's crack at a faux-traditional folk ballad, inspired by the real-life mariner Lou Kenedy.
On that 1980 album, though, it takes on shades of patriotism and nationalism, especially near tunes like the proletariat anthem "Comin' Apart at Every Nail."
In that jingoistic context, the uninitiated listener might even think it's not a seaman's ballad at all, but an extended metaphor for a certain doomed president.
One of the primary revelations of Chrome Dreams is a studio version of "Stringman," one of Young's most emotionally incisive songs.
He wrote it for producer and Stray Gators pianist Jack Nitzsche, who was undergoing an agonizing divorce. Young takes a birds-eye view of the trauma, examining the trauma through metaphorical lenses: a sergeant laying down his weapons, sun-kissed lovers rendered as smut.
On Unplugged, with years under his belt, Young delivers with maximum pathos and gravitas.
But if this earlier version had been in fans' ears, it could only have enriched "Stringman"; it'd be a clinic in how a song can develop an emotional patina with age.
Fitting for an album that begins with an evocation of Johnny Rotten, Rust Never Sleeps is charged with a flippant, punky energy for its latter half.
Accordingly, the version of "Sedan Delivery" out since 1979 is far more uptempo than the one on Chrome Dreams. As such, it tends to blur into the sonic violence of its lovably lunkheaded neighbor, "Welfare Mothers."
This more natural tempo and execution suits "Sedan Delivery," and allows space to absorb its harebrained lyrical images; if the world knew it like this, perhaps it'd be more than a race to the end of Rust Never Sleeps.
Is "Powderfinger" more powerful as an acoustic or electric song?
Most fans regard the latter with something like religious awe; it's the ultimate marriage of Young's penetrating songwriting with the string-popping frenzy he demonstrates with the Horse.
But there's a case that the solo version on Chrome Dreams and Hitchhiker has just as much impact, just from a different angle.
The Young classic's about a young man attempting to protect his family from an approaching gunboat; when the arrangement can breathe, the story takes on weight and dynamism.
Indeed, when the shot rings out, and the protagonist's "face splashe[s] in the sky," Young's hushed delivery renders the image that much more darkly unforgettable.
Maybe the answer to the above question is a toss-up. But the acoustic version "Powderfinger" provides a crucial side-window into this magnificent song.
"Look Out for My Love"
The hypnotic fan favorite "Look Out for My Love" has a way of getting under your skin; it's an unquestionable highlight of 1978's Comes a Time, and does a mesmerizing job as the closer to Chrome Dreams.
"Look Out for My Love" is exquisite by its own merits; the only difference would have been that Comes a Time would lose a pendulum-like classic.
If the world knew and loved Chrome Dreams, the point of Chrome Dreams II would have clicked immediately — its acoustic-electric yin-yang is spiritually in dialogue with these songs.
But that's Young — if he didn't work in mysterious ways, we'd all want our money back.
In a way, his younger self is his primary collaborator these days; he's on a mission to preserve fleeting visions and headspaces of yore. And in return, his fans have a will to love.
Source Images (Clockwise, L-R): Raymond Boyd/Getty Images; Astrida Valigorsky/Getty Images; Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy; Gregory Bojorquez/Getty Images; Paul Natkin/WireImage; Anthony Barboza/Getty Images; JC Olivera/WireImage; Kevin Kane/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images; Jason Koerner/Getty Images
50 Artists Who Changed Rap: Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem & More
In honor of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop this year, GRAMMY.com is celebrating some of the genre's most impactful artists across the decades. From Drake to OutKast, Lauryn Hill to Lil Wayne, these pioneers shaped rap over the past 50 years of hip-hop.
At its core, hip-hop began as a joyful expression, a grassroots community-organizing method, and an outlet to creatively and freely rebel against the socioeconomic turmoil happening across America in the early '70s. The genre's mythical-like origin remains an integral part of American history: From the recreation room of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, an 18-story apartment building in the South Bronx, New York City, DJ Kool Herc captivated audiences young and old as he commanded the turntables at a birthday party for his sister, Cindy Campbell, while MCs Theodore Puccio and Coke La Rock shouted out rhymes over Herc's instrumental beats.
While there is evidence that foundational elements of hip-hop emerged long before it boomed out of that South Bronx party — listen to Pigmeat Markham's "Here Comes The Judge" from 1968, for example — this momentous day, Aug. 11, 1973, would become known as the origin of hip-hop, with Herc being anointed the genre's founding father.
What began as a local sound and burgeoning scene in the "Boogie Down Bronx" has since evolved into a global movement. Hip-hop today is a powerful, unapologetic force that has influenced every genre of music and impacted every facet of society and pop culture around the world. Over the past five decades, the sound has expanded as a multi-genre invention. The party-starting, feel-good rhymes of the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," the first global rap hit, paved the way for the piercing social commentary and "reality rap" fueling Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's hit single "The Message," the latter of which can be traced to current-day rap prophets like Kendrick Lamar and Noname.
As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of hip-hop this year, GRAMMY.com is honoring some of the genre's most impactful artists, producers and creators in our inaugural 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list. Through this wide-spanning list, we are paying tribute to the pioneers, originators and futurists who have shaped hip-hop culture, pushed the artistic boundaries of rap over the past five decades, and continued to evolve the sound into the future.
To be clear, this list is not a ranking of the "best" rappers, nor is it a voting-based compilation of the top-selling artists in hip-hop. Rather, it is meant to serve as a survey of some of the most influential and impactful artists who have shaped rap music and hip-hop culture over the past 50 years.
To help compile our list of these 50 influential artists, GRAMMY.com invited an industry panel of established music veterans, cultural and music journalists, published authors, and music historians, who collectively submitted hundreds of artists suggestions. (See the full list of contributors below.) Based on these initial submissions from our industry panel, the artists comprising the final list, presented below in no ranking order, were selected based on a wide yet loose range of indicators: creative and artistic impact; career evolution and longevity; classic and influential albums; and beyond.
Of course, no one list could ever contain the whole of hip-hop and its ever-expansive reach. Nor could any list of influential rappers be whittled down to a mere list of 50. That's an impossible feat. Rather, our 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list stands as a love letter to some of the culture's defining moments and impactful voices that have helped create a global movement that continues to inspire and ignite future generations from all walks of life.
"As we approach hip-hop's 50th anniversary, it's important to acknowledge all of its accomplishments and the people in it," Len Brown, Senior Project Manager of Awards and Rap, Reggae, and R&B Genre Manager for the Recording Academy, shares. "What was once thought of as a passing fad has become the world's biggest genre despite it being the youngest — all made possible by the ingenious minds that continuously push the boundaries of music. There are countless individuals who got us this far and countless more who'll continue to carry the culture for the next 50 years and beyond."
There is so more to be said about our beloved hip-hop culture. Its history is rich and deep, while its future is still being written by today's leading lights and new, emerging voices revolutionizing rap. Today, we offer you this list as your jump-off to celebrate hip-hop in all its glory as we honor 50 Years of Hip-Hop all year long.
Explore the music from every artist featured in our 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list in an exclusive playlist, curated by longtime GRAMMY.com contributor and hip-hop tastemaker Kevin L. Clark, on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora.
Visit our Rap genre page for more exclusive content and to explore some of the rap's most memorable moments in GRAMMY history across the decades. Continue to visit GRAMMY.com for more exclusive 50 Years of Hip-Hop content throughout the year.
— Kevin L. Clark & John Ochoa
2 Live Crew
All titillating, risqué elements of hip-hop's artistry — hits from Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" to Cardi B's and Megan Thee Stallion's "WAP" to Sexyy Red's "Pound Town" — owe a sizeable debt to Miami rap quartet 2 Live Crew. As regions in the American West and South first made their presence known in hip-hop during the late 1980s, 2 Live Crew — "Uncle Luke" Campbell, the late Fresh Kid Ice, Brother Marquis, DJ Mr. Mixx — introduced the bottom-heavy Miami bass sound to the culture with their ribald 1986 single, "Throw the D." Pioneering a frat-party climate incorporating stripper-influenced female stage performers and comical, sexually explicit material on The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are (1986) and Move Somethin' (1988), the group soon ran afoul of authorities who deemed their albums legally obscene, becoming the first act to release the first sound recording to be declared obscene.
The first act in music history to release profanity-free, "clean" versions of their albums, 2 Live Crew soldiered through legal battles fighting for their freedom of speech that eventually ruled in the group's favor. In obscenity trials across the early '90s tied to the Crew's hit 1989 album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, which was ruled obscene and illegal to sell in 1990, the group was ultimately acquitted of the charges, with the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals holding that the music held artistic value, despite its graphic contents. Through these legal cases, 2 Live Crew arose as the unlikeliest champions of freedom of speech, with First Amendment advocates and major artists, including David Bowie, alike defending the group's artistic freedom and protected speech.
A separate legal skirmish, in which the group was sued for copyright infringement over a parody they recorded of Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman," made its way to the Supreme Court. The Court held the music as parody and therefore cleared as fair use rather than copyright infringement; this case against 2 Live Crew ultimately established that a commercial parody is covered under fair use laws.
Today, 2 Live Crew albums allow hip-hop a sexual freedom of expression that infuses the work of current acts from Plies to City Girls. — Miles Marshall Lewis
2Pac, born Tupac Amaru Shakur, was born into activism; his mother, Afeni Shakur, and biological father, William Garland, were both Black Panthers. He once famously said, "I'm not saying I'm gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world," a hip-hop quotable that suggests his influence is still igniting brains for metamorphosis.
Shakur's rap career was incubated by Oakland's Digital Underground, who took him on tour as a roadie and dancer and collaborated with him. DU's politically aware yet party-loving ethos helped inject some fun into Shakur's edge. He'd later define this as "THUG LIFE," standing for "the hate u give little infants f— everyone," an eternal hip-hop mantra, also emblazoned as an iconic tattoo across this torso, that would become highly mimicked by rappers who wished to follow in his footsteps.
Known for working furiously in the studio, Shakur sensed he would die young and he wanted to leave a lot behind. He released four albums between 1991 and 1996: 2Pacalypse Now, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z…, Me Against the World, and All Eyez on Me. He also left behind enough material for seven posthumous albums — six solo works and one collaborative album with Tha Outlawz. Throughout his discography, he spoke truth to power, rapping about the harsh realities of hood life ("Changes"), female empowerment ("Keep Ya Head Up"), and eternal maternal love ("Dear Mama"). He also knew how to throw down a party anthem as heard on "California Love" and "I Get Around."
The life and legacy of Shakur, who was killed in 1996, continues to be studied and valued in the present. From his never-before-heard appearance in Kendrick Lamar's instant classic, To Pimp A Butterfly, to Dear Mama, an acclaimed docuseries about his relationship with his mom, which premiered in April on FX, Pac's influence will never wane; his recent Hollywood Walk of Fame star unveiling is a testament to that fact. — Tamara Palmer
Queens, New York, native Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's impact on hip-hop is undeniable — and far-reaching. In a span of roughly 20 years, the rapper has released five successful studio albums, produced a slew of successful television shows, created a record label, G-Unit Records, founded his own cognac brand, and had a hand in other fruitful business ventures. His placement on this list is palpable.
Before his major-label debut, 50's mixtapes, including Guess Who's Back?, flooded the streets and generated a large fanbase that helped aid his breakthrough success. After being discovered by Eminem and signed to Shady/Aftermath Records, 50 worked with legendary producer Dr. Dre to create his blockbuster debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin' in 2003. A commercial success, going 9x platinum, the seminal album showed audiences 50's lyrical prowess as well as his mainstream crossover reach. 50 Cent's career evolution, talent and success have left an indelible mark that will be seen and felt for generations to come. — Rachel McCain
A Tribe Called Quest
Composed of Q-Tip, the late Phife Dawg, occasional member Jarobi White, and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, A Tribe Called Quest helped carve a space for rappers (and rap listeners) with a bohemian bent to their hip-hop aesthetic. Formed by high school friends from Queens, New York, the group established its own unique sound through the use of jazz and rock samples, a practice then unorthodox for hip-hop in the early 1990s. Early on, they helped create a bridge between jazz and hip-hop, two worlds then often seen as distantly disconnected. Legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter, for example, guested on A Tribe Called Quest's seminal sophomore album, The Low End Theory, marking one of the earliest collaborations between jazz and hip-hop musicians.
Widely considered to be masterpieces of the genre, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), The Low End Theory (1991), and Midnight Marauders (1993) — their initial trio of albums — established A Tribe Called Quest as mavericks of sound and sonic visionaries.The group's final studio album, We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (2016), featured appearances by Elton John and Jack White — exemplifying the group's reputation as genre-inclusive pioneers of alternative hip-hop.
A Tribe Called Quest's Afrocentric, left-of-center, cultural nationalist aesthetic set them apart as iconoclasts, clear antecedents to the likes of OutKast, Kanye West, Tyler, the Creator, and so many others. — Miles Marshall Lewis
Big Daddy Kane
Antonio Hardy, aka Big Daddy Kane, is your favorite rapper's favorite rapper — a skilled, all-around technician with an unrelentingly charismatic appeal. His impeccable '80s styling – replete with velour suits, gold accessories, and a high-top fade — accentuated his innovative rhyme schemes, honed from his time as a battle rapper from Brooklyn prior to linking with Marley Marl's Juice Crew alongside friend and collaborator Biz Markie. His debut single, "Raw," was an underground sensation, introducing a new style of rhyming: quick and in syncopation with complex drum schemes without sacrificing articulation. Long Live the Kane, Kane's first album, is a showcase of his prodigious talents on the microphone: Where "Set It Off" unleashed his array of dizzying rhymes with locomotive speed, "Ain't No Half-Stepping" was a casual stroll through extended metaphors, maximizing the suave and commanding texture of his voice as it lingered on the beat.
Kane was simultaneously a powerful MC and a sex symbol; he would lean into his "loverman" appeal with hits such as his chart-topping "Smooth Operator," a relaxed and polished display of lyrical finesse over a blend of samples including "All Night Long" by the Mary Jane Girls, Isaac Hayes' "Do Your Thing and Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing." Kane succeeded at being the player, lyrical assassin, an Afrocentric rhyme-spitter all in one — a level of dexterity that would influence a number of greats that followed him, from Jay-Z to Eminem to Black Thought to Notorious B.I.G. — Shamira Ibrahim
Chief Keef started his career as rap's Ozzy Osbourne, the most visible figure in a burgeoning scene as exciting as it was controversial. But over the last decade, he has morphed into hip-hop's Brian Eno, making ever weirder projects while retaining something close to A-list name recognition. When Keef emerged in the early 2010s thanks to thundering singles "I Don't Like" and "Love Sosa" and support from stars like Kanye West and 50 Cent, the music industry seemed hellbent on sanding down his edges. The resulting album, 2012's Finally Rich, went platinum, but it gave fans little indication of the auteurist approach that would come to define the rest of Chief Keef's career.
Since eschewing mainstream success, Keef has honed his eccentricities on a series of excellent mixtapes, including Thot Breaker (2017), a delightfully strange project filled with slurred melodies and chirping synths. As one of the chief pioneers of drill, his most palatable impact on rap is perhaps heard across the international drill scenes bubbling up across underground scenes around the world. Without Keef, drill would not be the dominating subgenre in rap it is today. Still just 27, Keef has settled into a role not just as your favorite rapper's favorite rapper, but as one of their go-to producers: He's crafted wonderfully bizarre soundscapes for Lil Uzi Vert, Coi Leray, and YoungBoy Never Broke Again. — Grant Rindner
De La Soul
Completely innovative for their era, De La Soul heralded the entrance of nerdy wunderkinds into a hip-hop culture then full of machismo and blustering bravado. High school friends from suburban Long Island, New York, Kelvin "Posdnuos" Mercer, the late Dave "Trugoy the Dove" Jolicoeur, and Vincent Mason, aka DJ Maseo, debuted as teenagers with 1988's verbally obstruse "Plug Tunin'." A masterful full-length debut, 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), contained a wide-ranging sonic collage of stacked samples and highly diversified snippets of sounds, placing Sly Stone alongside Steely Dan and beyond.
The groundbreaking production style led to a lawsuit by the Turtles, the 1960s rock band who demanded royalties for the use of 12 seconds of their music on the album. A legal decision in the Turtles' favor changed sampling laws forever, but De La Soul kept the innovation coming throughout a catalog of classics, including De La Soul Is Dead, Buhloone Mindstate and Stakes Is High, which is now, thankfully, available on all DSPs to inspire future generations to come. — Miles Marshall Lewis
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
"We wanna let everybody know where it's at. It's right here — ‘Yo! MTV Raps.’" The skinny guy in the orange tank top and MTV baseball cap rapping into the camera was still years away from having his own sitcom, and further still from being one of the most bankable movie actors on the planet. But if you happened to be watching the premiere episode of “Yo! MTV Raps” on Aug. 6, 1988, you would see one thing clearly: Will Smith exploded off the screen. The guy was a star.
Will teamed up with the virtuosic DJ Jazzy Jeff, and the group's beatboxer Ready Rock C, back in 1985. By the time of the “Yo!” appearance, they already had two albums under their belt, including He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper (1988). That record, hip-hop's first-ever double album, ensured the group's place in history. Jeff's innovative DJ skills were front and center on songs like "Jazzy's In The House" and "DJ On Wheels," while Will brought his storytelling charm to "Parents Just Don't Understand" and "A Nightmare on My Street." Will's lyrics were funny and universal — you didn't have to be from the Bronx, or even West Philly, to relate to being scared of Freddy Kreuger. Plus, as Ann Carli, then a Jive Records exec, recalls during the "Parents…" video shoot, as quoted in Brian Coleman's indispensable tome, Check the Technique, Vol. 2, "The camera loves him."
From there, it was off to the races. More hit songs, TV and movie stardom, jumping out of planes, and all the rest. But it all started with a rap group that combined two world-class talents into a GRAMMY-winning package that all the world could love. — Shawn Setaro
DJ Kool Herc
Clive "DJ Kool Herc" Campbell is an essential part of hip-hop's origin story. His younger sister, Cindy Campbell, asked him to play at a "Back to School Jam" she organized for Aug. 11, 1973, much like the ones she organized within the 1520 Sedgwick Avenue recreation room. At the party, today considered the day when hip-hop was born, Campbell introduced his "merry-go-round" turntable method in which he isolated the instrumental breakdowns in funk records for the "beat boys" in attendance. Over the next few years, as the legend of the party grew, Campbell established himself as a top DJ in the area, thanks in no small part to a massive sound system he built and the presence of helpers — dancers, fledging MCs and DJs, security — called the Herculoids, named after the Hanna-Barbera cartoon. In 1977, Herc was the victim of a stabbing at a local nightclub, an incident Bronx pioneers believe marked the end of his dominance and allowed rivals to surpass him. However, DJ Kool Herc remains a Promethean figure who sparked the beginning of what would later be known as hip-hop. He's the ultimate reason we're all celebrating 50 Years of Hip-Hop this year. In November, he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. — Mosi Reeves
Less than 20 years after the 1977 New York City blackout, where Black youth across the boroughs of New York City came upon DJ equipment and found ways to use technology to achieve their dreams, a man named Robert Earl Davis Jr., also known as DJ Screw, used two turntables to fulfill his artistic dreams, while simultaneously establishing Houston a rap capital. When DJ Screw emerged in the 1990s, the predominant rap sound and DJ technique were East- and West Coast-focused. But when DJ Screw introduced his "chopped and screwed" style, his signature DJ technique that slowed records to create pockets for the beats to flow, windows of opportunity opened for rappers across Houston to join the fold.
He created a kaleidoscope, a purple-tinted portal where Southern rappers traveled through region and time to tell their stories. There was not a street or avenue in Houston or the South where chopped and screwed could not be heard from a nearby car or window. He gave Houston and the South an opportunity to be heard within the boisterous noise of bicoastal hip-hop. In the 23 years since his passing, his chopped and screwed sound has been used by the world's greatest entertainers — horror auteur Jordan Peele has used chopped and screwed sounds in scenes and trailers for hit films like Nope and Us — and created an entry point for Houston to achieve worldwide cultural and musical success. All because of one man and his turntables. — Taylor Crumpton
Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick
Throughout the early 80s, Douglas "Doug E. Fresh" Davis built a reputation for vocal percussion, or "beatboxing," and recorded a few 12-inch singles while collaborating with the likes of Kurtis Blow and others. In 1984, he recruited a teenage MC, Ricky "Slick Rick" Walters, to join Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew. In 1985, the group released "The Show / La-Di-Da-Di," a gold-certified 12-inch that highlighted both Fresh's talents as a Master of Ceremonies and Rick's unforgettably British-inflected voice and sly, witty lyrics.
After going their separate ways, the two continued to have a major impact during the early years of rap's golden age. One of hip-hop's great entertainers, Doug E. Fresh scored several hits over the next few years like the spiritually inspired "All the Way to Heaven" (1986), the anti-drug protest "Nuthin'," and "I-Ight (Alright)" (1993). Slick Rick's storytelling prowess and use of off-key vocal harmonies, as showcased on his platinum solo album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, made him a major influence on subsequent generations of rappers. This year, he received a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award. — Mosi Reeves
Born Andre Young in Compton, California, Dr. Dre is one of hip-hop's definitive and standard-setting pioneers. Now a veteran DJ, artist and producer, Dr. Dre's public story began as a member of two very different, influential L.A. groups in the '80s: electro stars World Class Wreckin' Cru and gangster rap icons N.W.A; the latter is the subject of a popular 2015 biopic, Straight Outta Compton, and earned Dre international recognition for bringing the reality and struggles of inner-city street life to mainstream America.
Dr. Dre took home the first of his seven GRAMMY wins to date in 1994. That year, he won the GRAMMY for Best Rap Solo Performance for "Let Me Ride" from The Chronic, his groundbreaking, triple-platinum album, which has launched official international Dre Day celebrations every year since its release and helped normalize weed culture around the world. More golden gramophones have followed for his work with Eminem and Anderson .Paak, and he's also been nominated for his productions for Kendrick Lamar, 2Pac, 50 Cent, Gwen Stefani, and more.
Dr. Dre's ear for music has helped him become a billion-dollar entrepreneur as well. In 2006, he and his close business associate, Interscope label head Jimmy Iovine, created Beats Electronics to sell Beats By Dre headphones, which quickly set style and sales trends in the audio technology sector. Eight years later, Apple acquired Beats for a reported $3 billion. But with his GOAT-status secured, Dre didn't stop there. Over the years, he's helped carve the future for the next generation of music minds. He opened a magnet school in South Central's historic Leimert Park and co-founded the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy at the University of Southern California. At the 2023 GRAMMYs, Dre received the inaugural Dr. Dre Global Impact Award for his innovations and achievements throughout decades-long career. — Tamara Palmer
Who would've thought an actor from the Great White North would end up becoming one of the world's biggest pop culture icons? Drake's role on the popular Canadian teen drama series "Degrassi: The Next Generation" was simply a launching pad for a music career that would not only cross Canadian-American borders, but showcase the true universality of hip-hop. His signature R&B crooning melting over melodic rap beats, which began with his breakthrough mixtape So Far Gone (2009), halted the gangster mentality that ruled hip-hop in the late '00s.
From there, Drake surged as rap's global leader with classics like Take Care (2011) and If You're Reading This It's Too Late (2015). And while not his most acclaimed album, the commercial and international success of his 2016 blockbuster, Views, paired with a thrilling foray into dancehall and Afrobeats proved that he could take hip-hop into different pockets around the globe. He perfected his formula — a mix of tearful emotions, flirtatious loverboy charm, a braggadocio attitude, viral one-liners, and the ability to mold to various cultural sounds — and spun it into gold and platinum success. From currently holding the record for the most Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 to building his OVO Music empire, Drake still holds the mainstream industry in the palm of his hand to this day. — Bianca Gracie
With his colorful "slanguage" and consummate cool, E-40 has influenced MCs all over the world. The rapper, born Earl Stevens, built his label Sick Wid It through independent record sales, a hustle he learned from his uncle, the soul singer Saint Charles Thurman, who started the first distribution company for Black music in the Bay Area.
That independent strategy inspired like-minded artists to follow E-40's path: make millions on the streets and in the boardrooms. Most prominently, labels such as Cash Money Records and No Limit Records in New Orleans gave him foundational props; Master P started his No Limit Records inside a record store in Richmond, California, before returning to the South. After signing with Jive Records, E-40 released an impressive discography that includes three gold albums and one platinum album.
Continuing to expand his artistry in more recent years, E-40 has released songs and toured as one-quarter of the rap supergroup Mount Westmore alongside Too $hort, Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg. He has parlayed that independent hustle into building his own companies to sell alcoholic spirits and food, now stocked in liquor stores, grocery markets and big box stores like Costco. His debut cookbook, Goons With Spoons, created in conjunction with Snoop Dogg, will be released in November.
A community-minded philanthropist, E-40 has long given back to his communities. In 2023, he donated $100,000 to Grambling University, which he attended, to create the Earl "E-40" Stevens Sound Recording Studio on campus. And his do-it-yourself ethos continues to be seen today in the likes of fellow Bay Area rappers, including LaRussell and Larry June, and the next generation of MCs. — Tamara Palmer
The career of Eminem, born Marshall Bruce Mathers III, is unprecedented. The two biggest rap albums in American history are both his. Out of the 20 rap albums with the largest first-week sales, he has six. He is the best-selling rapper of all time and the best-selling artist of any type in the 2000s.
But sales are only the beginning of the story. For a few years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Eminem was the center of pop culture. His songs and antics created heated debates, which created even more songs and even more antics, in a feedback loop that grew giant enough to eventually include a still-powerful duet from Elton John and Em the GRAMMYs. Eminem brought the singer with him to perform at the 2001 GRAMMYs ceremony as an implicit answer to charges of homophobia that had been dogging him since he first exploded into the mainstream with controversial lyrics.
Eminem was always more than controversy, though. While his sales, as he was the first to admit, were boosted by his race, his skill level was never at issue. His blazingly technical raps were in service of a captivating life story. Before he was rhyming about reporters and politicians reacting to his contentious raps, he was spitting about being at "rock bottom" — depressed, hopeless, and struggling to get by. If there were something that fans of all backgrounds could relate to, it was not giving a f—. — Shawn Setaro
Eric B. & Rakim
One of the greatest hip-hops duos ever, Long Island duo Eric B. & Rakim symbolized hip-hop music at its most refined. Thanks to his late-'80s recordings with DJ/producer "Eric B." Barrier, William "Rakim" Griffin is often mentioned as the greatest MC of all time. His relaxed vocal presence, subtle use of Five Percenter Nation teachings, storytelling prowess, and ability to weave complex ideas into accessible lyrics have been mimicked by countless others. Considered an essential artifact of hip-hop's late-80s golden age, Paid in Full, the duo's 1987 debut album, is packed with hits like "Eric B. Is President," "My Melody," "I Know You Got Soul" — which popularized the use of James Brown samples in rap records — and "Move the Crowd."
Their second album, Follow the Leader (1988), marked a new peak in Rakim's lyrical abilities, while Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em (1990) was one of the most anticipated albums of the era. Before the group split and Rakim embarked on a solo career, they released Don't Sweat the Technique, which has recently achieved new popularity due to its use on television and in film. — Mosi Reeves
Atlanta had a major resurgence in the 2010s — and Future led the charge. A Dungeon Family member, he used Auto-Tune to create a dreary version of trap blues as he warbles about addiction, depression, manipulative relationships, and heartache. He solidified his legacy in 2015 when he unleashed a string of projects: the Beast Mode and 56 Nights mixtapes, the chopped-not-slopped DS2 album, and the What a Time to Be Alive collaborative mixtape with Drake, which highlighted Future's brilliant chemistry with rap's current titans. The onslaught of music spun a dark cloud over the rap genre, giving the green light for male rappers to be just as emotional as they are vengeful. Future's hot streak continues to this day: He's experimenting with new genres, including pop star collaborations with Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift; churning out hits, most recently the GRAMMY-winning "Wait For U" with partner-in-music Drake; and still confidently wearing his broken heart on his sleeve. — Bianca Gracie
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five
As one of many who followed in DJ Kool Herc's wake, Joseph "Grandmaster Flash" Saddler is a key innovator in the art of DJing, particularly in the way he mixed records and expanded on scratching, a technique first invented by Grand Wizzard Theodore. In the late 1970s, he assembled the crew of MCs who became the Furious Five and who would go on to release several classic hip-hop records: Keith "Cowboy" Wiggins, who is credited with the first use of the phrase "hip-hop," Melvin "Melle Mel" Glover, Mel's brother Kidd Creole, Guy "Raheim" Williams, and Eddie "Scorpio" Morris.
In 1979, the group recorded "Superrappin'," which many consider the first "real" Bronx hip-hop record. They then released several popular 12-inches that culminated in "The Message" (1982), a watershed moment in rap's development into a full-fledged musical artform. Meanwhile, Grandmaster Flash created "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," a showcase for his historic DJ skills that's considered the first turntablism record. In 2007, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five became the first hip-hop group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2021, the group received a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award. — Mosi Reeves
Though Tracy "Ice-T" Morrow wasn't the first L.A. rapper to make a song about street life — he prefers the term "reality rap" instead of the mainstreamed moniker "gangsta rap" — he was arguably the most important. After a few years in the electro scene, marked by a performance in the 1984 film Breakin', Ice-T's "6 in the Mornin'," a vivid tale about a young hustler slanging dope and avoiding cops, made a huge local impact; it continues to influence rap artists to this day. In 1987, he became the first West Coast rapper to release an album on a major label with the gold-certified Rhyme Pays. By the time of his second album, Power (1988), Ice-T was widely considered the top solo rapper on the West Coast, while The Iceberg (Freedom of Speech..Just Watch What You Say) (1989) saw him expanding into social commentary and hard-rock experiments. His fourth album, O.G. Original Gangster (1992) introduced Body Count, a pioneering heavy metal/rap band that predicted the rise of rap rock. — Mosi Reeves
Watch: Hip-Hop History On Full Display During A Star-Studded Tribute To The 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop Featuring Performances By Missy Elliott, LL COOL J, Ice-T, Method Man, Big Boi, Busta Rhymes & More | 2023 GRAMMYs
Inimitable in sound and rhyme, Detroit's own James Yancey, also known as J Dilla, is respected around the world as "your favorite producer's favorite producer." A beloved and highly esteemed songwriter, producer, rapper, and drummer, he is a great influence on some of hip-hop's most diverse voices across the decades and to this day.
As a member of Slum Village, Dilla would quietly lace beats from his mother's basement for the likes of A Tribe Called Quest ("Find A Way"), Erykah Badu ("Didn't Cha Know"), MF DOOM ("Gazzillion Ear"), and countless others. Umpteen tributes on tracks and in concerts and from groups such as NxWorries (consisting of Anderson .Paak and Knxwledge), television programs (Cartoon Network's Adult Swim), and institutions (Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture) harken to his significant contribution to this thing we love called hip-hop.
Considered one of the greatest creatives in hip-hop history, J Dilla made innovative use of sound and imagination by employing real-time rhythms that may better translate as "a vibe" for listeners. He is directly responsible for bridging the soul and the sonic that distinguish rap as one of the most inventive art forms in recent history. Proving that his energetic beats matched his rhymes, Dilla's legacy continues to inspire and resonate within the hip-hop community today, and on hip-hop's milestone anniversary, his innovations and impact prove to be immortal, too. — Kevin L. Clark
Born Shawn Corey Carter in Brooklyn, New York, Jay-Z has made an indelible mark on hip-hop culture over three decades by marrying superlative lyrical creativity with an acute business acumen. Storming the gates of the record industry as co-owner and marquee artist of the independent Roc-a-Fella Records label, Jay-Z released the seminal Reasonable Doubt — a debut that instantly placed him among the top rappers of the 1990s. A consistent release schedule of unforgettable material, including Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, The Blueprint, The Black Album, and 4:44, created summertime classics for a whole generation while establishing him as one of the greatest rappers the culture has ever produced.
Jay-Z occupies a unique space in hip-hop as both a billionaire mogul and a rapper consistently recognized as one of the art form's all-time most talented. His stakes in various entrepreneurial ventures — the music streaming platform Tidal; the entertainment agency Roc Nation; the 40/40 Club sports lounge — lend as much to his legacy as his one-time rivalry with Nas, which resulted in hip-hop's most notorious battle between livi de ng MCs to date. His marriage to Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, one of the most iconic pop performers of the modern era, has also produced artistic contributions — see their joint album, Everything Is Love — as well as an enduring symbol of Black excellence. — Miles Marshall Lewis
The son of storied music executive Micheal Mauldin, Jermaine Dupri has contributed to hip-hop as a producer, songwriter, and executive. Most importantly, the GRAMMY winner, who started dancing for the likes of Diana Ross and Whodini, helped cultivate Atlanta into the rap capital it is today.
As the founder of So So Def Records, Dupri helped make Kris Kross and Lil Bow Wow hit-making teen heartthrobs in a music genre that leaned on more adult personas; he also played a major role in helping Da Brat become the first female rapper to go platinum. Even today, his time as an executive producer of the reality competition series The Rap Game gave way to the eventual rise of next-gen rapper Latto. That doesn't even count collaborations that have reached nearly every corner of hip-hop, including classics with Jay-Z, UGK, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Snoop Dogg, and more.
Dupri's legacy in hip-hop can also be heard in the musical bridge connecting rap and R&B. He's written and produced hit albums for Mariah Carey, Usher, Xscape, Jagged Edge, and countless more, his contributions furthering the bond between the two genres. — Ural Garrett
Where do we even begin? From producing some of the greatest rap songs of the 2000s as Jay-Z's protégé to emerging as one of the most critically and commercially successful rappers of all time, Kanye West might be the most important musician of the 21st century — genre irrelevant. His ability to toggle between incisive commentary ("All Falls Down," "Heard 'Em Say"), all-time braggadocio ("Can't Tell Me Nothing," "Power"), and wry humor ("Gorgeous," "Otis") made his every verse an event, and his blockbuster albums consistently showcased an expert sense of talent curation. In the early 2010s, when West made a hard pivot from the maximalism of his magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), to the industrial brutality of Yeezus (2013), he showed the kind of fearlessness that truly great artists possess, as he continued to push boundaries even in the face of skepticism.
The last several years of the Kanye West experience have been difficult and disturbing for many music fans. He's praised Adolf Hitler and made antisemitic comments, only to seemingly walk it all back, in a trollish fashion, albeit. A generational talent who has evolved his creative legacy in more ways than one, West's impact on music is clear and undeniable. Has he gone from industry iconoclast to outright outlier? Who's story is it to tell? But any attempt to wrap your mind around the first half-century of hip-hop history, and music in general, must include a reference to Kanye, whose DNA will be present in rap music for the next 50 years, at least. — Grant Rindner
In retrospect, Kendrick Lamar's renowned verse on "Control" might be better described as a manifesto rather than a call to war. After name-dropping nearly a dozen of the hottest rappers of the time, including the likes of Drake and J. Cole, Lamar challenges, "What is competition? I'm tryna raise the bar high. Who tryna jump and get it?" Ten years and one legendary career later, Lamar's three minutes of rhymes come off as less of a widespread diss and more of a statement of intent.
The Compton native went on to reach heights hip-hop had never seen before. In 2018, the 17-time GRAMMY winner won the Pulitzer Prize for DAMN., an achievement once described as "a watershed moment … and a sign of the American cultural elite's recognition of hip-hop as a legitimate artistic medium."
Still, despite such momentous contributions to the genre and culture at large, pinning down Lamar's direct influence on hip-hop really makes you stop and think. Perhaps that difficulty stems from the fact that so much of what makes Lamar great is his ability to combine the top traits of those who came before him. Whether it be channeling the narrative superpower of Nas on good kid, m.A.A.d city, the powerful social commentary of 2Pac on To Pimp A Butterfly, or the vulnerability of Jay-Z on tracks like "Mother I Sober," Lamar's biggest impact on hip-hop may just be the fact that he indeed raised the bar high for rap while embodying those who laid its foundation. — Taj Mayfield
A standard-setter who foreshadowed the international success of hip-hop, Kurtis "Blow" Walker is the genre's first superstar. Of his notable achievements, he became the first rapper to sign a major label deal (with Mercury Records) and the first to go gold via his 1980 single "The Breaks," which is recognized as one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time and remains his signature calling card.
Blow's enormous influence on the culture is directly tied to his ability to expand the boundaries of hip-hop and foster talent within and beyond his creative circles. His early DJ on the road was Joseph Simmons, who was nicknamed "Run, the Son of Kurtis Blow" and who later carved his own iconic career as one-third of the hip-hop trio Run-D.M.C. Blow and Run-D.M.C. starred in the 1985 movie Krush Groove, a fictional story that parallels that of New York label Def Jam Recordings, making Kurtis Blow essentially the first famous face in hip-hop to cross over into Hollywood.
In the mid-'90s, Blow became a radio DJ and hosted "The Old School Show" on Los Angeles radio station, Power 106. He was also ordained as a Christian minister, co-founded Hip-Hop Church, and released faith-based albums with his group, Kurtis Blow and the Trinity. Proving that hip-hop can coexist with gospel, Blow's spiritual-inspired music helped expand the audience for Christian music across genres and audiences. — Tamara Palmer
Ms. Lauryn Hill
With a pen in her hand, a song in her heart, and a story to tell, Ms. Lauryn Hill elevated hip-hop for the better during the '90s. Hill's work expertly blurs the lines between genres, often fusing doo-wop-flavored harmonies and '70s R&B with hip-hop swagger and the airiness of neo-soul. A Jersey native and member of the iconic rap group the Fugees, she became a household name after the international breakout success of her debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998). The project sees the musician exploring themes of love, heartbreak and family through a personal lens with universal impact. A commercial and critical success around the world, the album won the GRAMMY for Album Of The Year in 1999, making Hill the first-ever rap artist to win that category. To this day, she counts eight GRAMMYs, the most of any woman in hip-hop.
Hill's melodic rap technique and artistic versatility have inspired acts across genre lines in the years since, from Drake to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who credits several elements in his Broadway hit "Hamilton" to her art. — J'na Jefferson
Don't let her petite frame fool you: Lil' Kim has been larger than life since her 1994 debut as a member of Junior M.A.F.I.A. and mentee of the Notorious B.I.G. The Brooklyn native unlocked a next level for female rap with her 1996 debut solo album Hard Core. Even before the world heard the album, her seductive pose on the cover itself signaled a shift: It was time for women to take the lead. Hit singles like "No Time," "Crush on You" and "Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix)" established the rapper's signature raunchy lyrics and guttural tone, flipping the male-dominated, often misogynistic genre on its head as she reclaimed her sexuality. She also knows how to command respect, spitting ferocious bars on songs like Diddy's "It's All About the Benjamins" and Mobb Deep's "Quiet Storm (Remix)" alongside her male counterparts.
A bonafide hip-hop icon, Lil' Kim's influence spans generations and industries. A muse for countless rising female rap stars and designers like Versace and Marc Jacobs alike, she carved a safe space for Black women in the often exclusive, white- and male-dominant fashion and music industires. Her sartorial choices, as eye-popping as her naughty rhymes, still give next-gen female rappers like Baby Tate, GloRilla, and Cardi B the Queen Bee-confidence to exude the same sense of sexual liberation she pioneered in rap in the '90s. Her path in both music and fashion have made her one of rap's most impactful voices with an undeniable legacy. — Bianca Gracie
Lil Uzi Vert
Despite being a relatively new major player in the game, Lil Uzi Vert is an undeniable needle-mover in hip-hop. If that influence is hard to pin down, it's because Uzi has somehow made the existence of a quirky, emotional, rock-inspired rapper a common thing in 2023.
Similar to other breakout stars of the SoundCloud rap era who came up with them, including Lil Peep, XXXTentacion and Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert brought their unadulterated self into their music. The result? A steady flow of evocative, genre-defying hits and deep cuts. From anthems like "XO TOUR Lif3" (2017) to "Rehab," a standout track off their recently released Pink Tape, the 27-year-old Philadelphia native consistently wears their heart and inspirations on their sleeve. Years worth of quality music coupled with their unwavering authenticity have forever broadened the horizons of hip-hop, making way for many future Lil Uzi Verts. — Taj Mayfield
There are two distinguishable eras in rap history: before Tha Carter and after Tha Carter. Lil Wayne, who's impact on the evolution of the genre is immeasurable, has taken rap to rare heights and forever changed its influence in and from the South. With an undeniable and almost insurmountable work ethic, New Orleans' native son has delivered infinite memorable moments that have spanned decades. From his show-stealing turns with Cash Money's the Hot Boys to his chart-decimating hits like "A Milli" to his genre-defining Tha Carter album series, Weezy F. has lived up to his reign as the "Best Rapper Alive" for decades.
Boasting a deep appreciation for the culture, Wayne willed a layer of intuition and imagination that pushed rap to the next level. With a strength tougher than Nigerian hair, his impression can be heard throughout every era of modern hip-hop, from his own musical family tree with Young Money (Drake, Nicki Minaj) traced through to next-gen superstars (Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole).
Otherworldly, diverse, and an omnipresent influence in today's scene, Lil Wayne has been a blessing to rap, consistently pushing the game and growing the culture in immeasurable ways. — Kevin L. Clark
LL Cool J
There were rap albums before LL Cool J's Radio. But the genre was still largely singles-driven, and the albums then were usually stuffed with the hits, some filler, and a few unique experiments. It was Radio that turned the rap album into a work of art and kick-started the genre's golden age.
LL was nothing if not versatile. He put out iconic singles like "I Need a Beat" and "Rock the Bells." His genre-shifting music videos, such as "Around the Way Girl," "Hey Lover," and the seminal classic, "I Need Love," added breadth to the male-dominated industry. And his show-stopping appearance in the film Krush Groove aided in turning the young MC into a king from Queens.
He also set yet another trend: the "don't-call-it-a-comeback" comeback. After releasing two killer albums, LL dropped Walking With A Panther in 1989. While it was a commercial success, Panther was shunned by hip-hop artists and fans at the time, due to its mainstream crossover appeal, and LL was deemed over by the hip-hop community, out of touch with a conscious, Afrocentric age of the time. Barely into his 20s, it seemed his time was up. And then, he had rap music's first major comeback — lyrical protestation notwithstanding. Mama Said Knock You Out was a return to form that set LL Cool J up for a lifelong career in music, TV, movies, and even that whimsical song about his shark-fin-like hat. — Shawn Setaro
Thanks to songs like "Thizzelle Dance" and "Feelin' Myself," Vallejo rapper Andre "Mac Dre" Hicks was the pied piper of hyphy, an innovation marked by bouncy bass and skittering funk rhythms. It dominated the Bay Area throughout the 2000s and remains a key component of the region's distinctive hip-hop scene.
Mac Dre's career dated back to 1989 with the local hit "Too Hard for the F—in' Radio." But in a case that made national headlines, he was arrested and convicted for allegedly being involved in bank robberies — his supporters continue to claim his innocence — and became the first rapper to make music, Back N Da Hood, while imprisoned. (He recorded his vocals over the phone.) When he finally returned to rap in the late '90s, he began refining his idiosyncratic style using P-funk tones and a droll and witty vocal tone. As expressed through songs like "Get Stupid" and "Not My Job," it was a style that eventually shook up the world and led to the foundation and popularization of the hyphy movement.
Unfortunately, Mac Dre didn't get to witness the peak and great success of his music, which was ultimately used in television and film as well as at sporting events. His unsolved killing in 2004 happened just as he seemed poised for a national breakthrough. — Mosi Reeves
The history of hip-hop is dotted with great business minds, but it's rare that someone's boardroom acumen proved so strong that their run of multiplatinum albums and smash singles feels entirely secondary. Such is the case with Master P, the New Orleans native who founded No Limit Records and, along with Cash Money's sibling duo of Bryan "Birdman" and Ronald "Slim" Williams, changed the paradigm of the rap mogul forever. In 1995, P partnered No Limit with Priority Records in a deal that saw him cover the brunt of the creative costs in exchange for greater creative control and backend profits.
He broke through as an MC with Ice Cream Man and Ghetto D, albums that served more as showcases for the No Limit collective than P himself. Ceding the showier roles and technical flair to collaborators like Silkk the Shocker, Mia X and Mystikal, Master P brought a kind of brute force charisma that's easy to see working for him wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. No Limit has evolved into an entity where pioneers like Mia X can celebrate women in hip-hop, while P continues to expand the empire through winning partnerships (Snoop Cereal) and new offerings (Rap Snacks) that created the reason this music industry owes gratitude to Master P. — Grant Rindner
Though she may not always receive the fanfare of her more mainstream cohorts, MC Sha-Rock changed the hip-hop ecosystem forever when she hit the booth in the late '70s. Largely considered to be the first female rapper, Sha-Rock, known as the "Mother of the Mic," helped pave the way for every woman rapper on this list — and beyond. Though she has B-girl origins, the South-Bronx-bred spitter showcased her raw talent and confidence behind the mic. As a member of Funky 4+1, her natural charisma and ability established the blueprint for the future of women in rap. Though Funky 4+1 was the first hip-hop group to appear on national television, it wasn't until the '80s when women rappers began to break through on an international scale. You can thank Sha-Rock for first opening that door, shattering the glass ceiling, and ushering in a gender breakthrough that's helped women dominate rap today. — J'na Jefferson
Explore More: Ladies First: 10 Essential Albums By Female Rappers
Whether fans tuned into MF DOOM or aliases such as Viktor Vaughn or King Gedorah, the rapper/producer born Dumile Daniel Thompson offered some of the most memorable art found in hip-hop.
A London native transplanted to Long Island, New York, Dumile began his career as Zev Love X, forming the group KMD with his brother DJ Subroc. But after Subroc's sudden death and their record label's refusal to release their album, Zev Love X went on hiatus — and returned as MF DOOM, donning a mask to combat the music industry's corruption. He built a prolific catalog inspired by comic books, cartoons, and the absurdities and mundanities of life, creating worlds that brimmed with vibrant wordplay. His husky voice, conversational flow, and impossibly intricate rhyme schemes comprised his calling card, along with equally absurd references and unpredictable punchlines.
DOOM earned a rep among indie rap's best in the early 2000s, but he became a rap deity with Madvillainy, the album that smartly paired him with producer Madlib's collection of obtuse jazz and TV samples that were just as mercurial. The record elevated DOOM's iconography and solidified him as one of rap's most distinctive creators ever, with fans and other MCs alike paying reverence. — William E. Ketchum
In the late '90s, thin was "in" and hypersexualized female rappers became commonplace. But a big woman with big talent — and an even bigger patent-leather blowup suit — snuck in to extinguish these industry standards, becoming the people's champ and an undisputed icon in the process. Missy Elliott's pleasingly off-kilter brand of bravado is marked by eye-catchingly creative music videos, like the aforementioned, star-making "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," entertaining performance techniques, and next-level beats crafted by her and her longtime friend and fellow Virginian, Timbaland. She's created works of art that have stood the test of time, allowing her to see and receive her flowers while she can still smell them: During GRAMMY Week 2023, Missy received the Recording Academy Global Impact Award at the Recording Academy Honors Presented By The Black Music Collective event; later this year, she will become the first woman rapper inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. By dismantling boundaries, Missy Elliott paved the way for hip-hop artists to be unapologetically themselves. — J'na Jefferson
Dubbed the "world's most dangerous group," gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A put Compton, California, on the map in the late '80s with their provocative music and a name that embodied their unflinching bravado: N—z With Attitudes.
At the time, acts like Public Enemy, Kool Moe Dee, LL Cool J, and Eric B. & Rakim dominated the airwaves, with songs about everything from love, partying and lyrical prowess to race and politics. However, few were as overly explicit and provocative as the rising stars from the West Coast who disrupted the industry with the release of their hard-hitting debut album, Straight Outta Compton, in 1988.
With a stacked lineup consisting of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, Ice Cube, and MC Ren, the L.A. natives rapped about gang violence, police brutality, street life, and hood experiences. They were accused of demeaning women and glorifying violence and drug use, and as their music continues to stoke controversy as hip-hop lyrics in court proceedings are subject to debate today, N.W.A's provocative debut resonates to this day through new generations of fans. While the group would go on to sell millions of records and produce three superstar solo acts, their timeless album and its definitive protest anthem, "F— tha Police," cemented their place in the pantheon of hip-hop, forever changing the culture and the world at large with its powerful message. The emotionally charged song offers a scathing critique of systemic inequality that reflects the frustrations that marginalized communities harness for the discrimination they continue to face decades after the track dropped.
While their tenure was short-lived, N.W.A's paradigm-shifting music inspired a slew of acts that would leave their own stamp on the culture, including 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, the Game, and DJ Quik. — Desiree Bowie
A perennial member of every hip-hop lover's top five rappers of all time lists, Nas inherited the crown of rap's greatest golden-age wordsmiths upon releasing his 1994 debut album, Illmatic, which helped establish the legend's nearly 30-year stellar reputation for MCing. Son of jazz cornetist Olu Dara, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones grew up in the Queensbridge housing projects in Queens, New York, also the home of fellow hip-hop luminaries like Roxanne Shanté and producer Marley Marl. During a period when the hip-hop aesthetic seemed forever redirected to the West Coast, Nas helped refocus attention back on New York City, the birthplace of the culture.
Following the killings of both 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G., concerns rang out when a long-simmering rivalry between Nas and Jay-Z went public on diss tracks like "Ether" (2001) and "Takeover" (2001). Defying the worst of expectations, their war of words eventually morphed into both a professional relationship — Nas signed to Def Jam in 2006 with Jay-Z as the label's then-president — and creative bond, with the duo releasing a joint song, "Black Republican," in 2007). On a recent string of collaborations with producer Hit-Boy — including the GRAMMY-winning King's Disease (2020) — Nas has helped alter expectations around career longevity in hip-hop. — Miles Marshall Lewis
The Neptunes — the production duo powered by the genius of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo — changed the sound of late-'90s and early-2000s hip-hop, jump-starting and transforming the careers of countless artists across every genre imaginable in the process.
After getting their start with New Jack Swing pioneer Teddy Riley, the Neptunes made a name for themselves by producing N.O.R.E.'s "Superthug" and Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money" as well as albums for Clipse and Kelis.
The start of their hip-hop takeover can, perhaps, be traced to 2000, when they produced Jay-Z's "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)." The song, which features Pharrell's memorable voice on the hook, became Hov's first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart.
The hit also caught Britney Spears' attention, prompting her to enlist the Virginia Beach duo to write and produce "I'm A Slave 4 U," which marked a major turning point in her mature, new sound. The Neptunes also helped Justin Timberlake craft a new sound and image, producing much of his debut solo album, Justified.
The duo's off-kilter, funk-influenced sound made them sought-after — and heavily imitated — producers for much of the aughts. Some of their 2000s hits include "Hot in Herre" by Nelly, "Drop It Like It's Hot" by Snoop Dogg, "Money Maker" by Ludacris and "Milkshake" by Kelis. Pharrell also helped usher in the era when producers came to the forefront of the spotlight, rapping and singing in songs and appearing in music videos for the artists they produced.
Counting four GRAMMY wins, the pair won Producer of the Year in 2003 and Producer of the Decade in 2009 at the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Awards. In 2022, the Neptunes were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a distinction that proves just how much they changed the sound of the culture and music as a whole. — Victoria Moorwood
Nicki Minaj rewrote the rules of hip-hop through her unparalleled rhyming ability, an arsenal of flows, a collection of character-driven voices, and crossover success. As a result, she single-handedly elevated female rap in the mainstream in the 2010s. Her reign came during a time when hip-hop was still considered to be a male-dominated terrain. Nonetheless, she proved female rappers can keep up with the boys, though she regularly surpassed them in skill level. Her genre-bending hits showcase her versatility, and her writing and performance talents make her one of the hottest commodities in music. She not only took risks, she made hits: Counting 132 entries, Nicki Minaj holds the record for the most Billboard Hot 100 hits by a woman rapper. Thanks to Nicki Minaj — or Nicki Lewinsky, Nicki the Ninja, you know what it is — a new generation of female rap superstars gained the courage to make their own magic. — J'na Jefferson
The Notorious B.I.G.
Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G., is a titan in hip-hop history, a wordsmith whose lyrical potency is intensified by the brevity of his career. Wallace's gravitas — in physical stature and in reputation — belied his youth; as a Jamaican-American who grew up in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood, bordering Bedford-Stuyvesant at the height of the crack era, he spent his early years navigating the threshold between civilian life and street life and brought those complexities to his songwriting and vivid storytelling. With the guidance of Sean Combs — who then went by the moniker Puff Daddy – Wallace quickly went from "Unsigned Hype" in The Source magazine to Bad Boy's marquee artist, crashing onto the charts in 1994 with his debut album, Ready to Die, at just 21 years old.
The album is a balance of massive, radio-friendly singles with quasi-autographical, introspective records that are bracing in their emotional range and attention to detail: For every "Juicy," "Big Poppa," and "One More Chance," there's "Warning," "Gimme the Loot," and "Suicidal Thoughts." In each track, Biggie played with the morphology of words and rhyming cadences at will, stretching vowels and contracting them to a staccato-like delivery with the proficiency of a jazz musician. Wallace's cinematic approach to rapping became his signature. He would form the crew Junior M.A.F.I.A. in this image, crafting records such as "Get Money" and "Player's Anthem" — songs as entertaining as they were illustrative that also introduced the world to the force of nature that was Lil' Kim.
His posthumous second album, presciently titled Life After Death (1997), is a sprawling double album replete with gangster epics such as "Somebody's Gotta Die," "N—s Bleed," and "What's Beef?" Released sixteen days after his killing in 1997, Biggie's mainstream crossover singles hit like a tidal wave. The chart-topping singles, "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems" and "Hypnotize," launched the patented Bad Boys formula of the renowned Hitmen production team into the stratosphere, eventually inspiring the likes of Kanye West and others to speed up soul samples to achieve similar success. Wallace's own vocals — heavy and lush, with the ability to glide like butter via a cascade of internal rhyme schemes — still sound as fresh today as they did when the project initially released to critical acclaim on March 25. And despite the tragic coda that cut short the life of this king from Kings County, the Notorious B.I.G.'s narrative prowess remains eternal.— Shamira Ibrahim
When OutKast's André 3000 proudly proclaimed "the South got something to say" at the 1995 Source Awards, the Atlanta rapper and his creative partner, Big Boi, had no idea of the significance those words would have on rap music today. At the time of their 1994 debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, the South was regarded as country, "backwards," and behind the times. Those words, a whistleblow, could've been misinterpreted by white and rural communities that these artists and their regions were not deemed "hip-hop." Hip-hop was cool, coastal, and cosmopolitan — not country. Yet, André 3000 and Big Boi did not mind being regarded as country; in fact, they embraced it.
Their music and Southern hip-hop overall incorporated the stylings of blues and gospel. Their delivery had a twang to it. They were not here to duplicate East Coast or West Coast hip-hop. They were on a mission to give young, Black, working-class people in the South something to say. Although based in Atlanta, their perspectives and reflections on Black life in the South took root in states across the region. Eventually, they became the leaders of the Southern hip-hop scene. So, when the duo won the GRAMMY for Album Of The Year, for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, at the 2004 GRAMMYs — almost 10 years after their declaration at the Source Awards — the South was not only respected in hip-hop, but it became a contender for its rightful title. — Taylor Crumpton
One of the most profound and prolific groups in hip-hop's storied history, Public Enemy continues to be studied and applied to moments impacting music and culture today. Once Chuck D and Flava Flav connected with Terminator X and the Bomb Squad, the ethos and foundational tenets upon which hip-hop was founded — peace, love, unity, and having fun — finally came into realization. Their boom merged with the bap of the streets to showcase the reasons why hip-hop's culture should not only be championed but cherished — never allowing history to be erased or revised.
Members would go on to leave their imprint all over the then-burgeoning sound coming out of America. From producing Bel Biv Devoe's triple-platinum album, Poison, to contributing to one of the defining hip-hop albums of the 1990s, Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, Public Enemy has resonated through time as thought-proving and spark-inducing revolutionaries of sound that still challenge people to know that loud is not enough. — Kevin L. Clark
The Roots' longevity and artistic creativity have made a lasting impact on hip-hop. Illadelph's own are trailblazers of the genre, pioneers of a distinctive, alternative sound that combined rap with live instruments, conscious lyrics and jazz-influenced beats.
The Roots have not been afraid to tackle important topics and challenge societal norms: The video for their song "What They Do," off their third album Illadelph Halflife, mocks stereotypes seen in the music industry. Their most successful album, Things Fall Apart, is a nod to Chinua Achebe's critically acclaimed book by the same name. The album originally had five different covers, one of which features teenagers running from police during the Civil Rights Movement era. The stark black-and-white image, alongside the album's themes, provided an artistic cohesion and political poignancy that solidified the group's impactful message.
All told, the Roots have 14 studio albums under their belt. Aside from music, the group's career evolution spans various ventures, including publishing (Black Thought's upcoming memoir, The Upcycled Self), music festivals (the annual Roots Picnic festival), and film (Questlove's GRAMMY-winning Summer of Soul). Not to mention mainstream TV: The Roots also hold down late night as the house band for NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon." The group's unique sound and its expression of pressing issues solidify the Legendary Roots Crew as important game-changers. — Rachel McCain
Historically, hip-hop has always been heralded as a young person's sport — and perhaps no one exemplifies that archetype better than Queensbridge's Roxanne Shanté. At merely 14, the upstart member of the Juice Crew led one of hip-hop's first rap beefs, responding to the U.T.F.O.'s (Untouchable Force Organization) "Roxanne Roxanne" with the searing "Roxanne's Revenge." Where U.T.F.O. detailed the saga of a woman who rejected their overtures, Shanté rebutted with a sharply constructed counternarrative, freestyling a story from the viewpoint of Roxanne being pestered by inadequate suitors who paled in comparison to her MC skills.
While the initial response made her famous, it would be her unflappable ability to hold her own in the flood of response tracks that would cement her legacy as a battle rapper and recording artist. Tracks such as "Queen of Rox (Shanté Rox On)" and "Bite This" would extend her victory streak against U.T.F.O. and the bevy of opponents who stepped up to the plate as the city raced to cash in on the so-called "Roxanne Wars." When KRS-One crudely attacked her in "The Bridge is Over" — in which he declared, "Roxanne Shanté is only good for steady fucking" — she rebutted on "Have a Nice Day": "Step back, peasants, popping all that junk/Or else BDP will stand for Broken Down Punks/'Cause I'm an all-star just like Julius Erving/And Roxanne Shanté is only good for steady serving." Not only was Shanté able to best the guys at their own game, but she also made a point to embarrass their misogynistic attacks while doing so. Further etching her impact on rap, this legacy would echo through the ages to be reflected in the likes of Megan Thee Stallion and Noname, even finding a spiritual namesake in Nicki Minaj's 2010 single, "Roman's Revenge." — Shamira Ibrahim
With two MCs (Joseph Simmons, aka Run, and Darryl McDaniels, aka D.M.C.), one DJ (Jason Mizell, aka Jam Master Jay), and a whole lot of Adidas, Run-D.M.C. became one of hip-hop's earliest music and style ambassadors to the world. It only took a few years after their 1984 debut for fans across the globe to know about their New York hometown of Hollis, Queens.
In 1986, Run-D.M.C. collaborated with Aerosmith on a new version of the Boston rock act's 1975 cut "Walk This Way." The unexpected, groundbreaking pairing became a No. 4 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. MTV put the song's music video, which shows the two groups literally smashing down walls, in heavy rotation and positioned the rappers as the genre-bending superheroes they're still seen as today, as their GRAMMY Hall Of Fame induction attests.
Before there were hip-hop categories at the GRAMMYs, Run-D.M.C. was nominated for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal at the 1987 GRAMMYs for their 1986 album, Raising Hell. After releasing seven albums and starring in the seminal hip-hop movies Krush Groove and Tougher Than Leather, Run-D.M.C. became the first rappers to receive the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor they received in 2016.
After surviving decades of the world insisting that hip-hop was a fad that would fade away, the natural course of Run-D.M.C. was cut short when Jam Master Jay was killed in his Queens, New York, recording studio in October 2002. Unforeseen violence cut the band's physical life short, but Run-D.M.C. remains an immortal mainstay in the pantheon of hip-hop history, a blueprint for countless rap tandems, and an essential part of the culture. — Tamara Palmer
There is no one quite like Scarface when it comes to this rap game. An innovator in rap subgenres like horrorcore and gangsta rap, he is one of hip-hop's most poignant storytellers and pioneers. Both as a member of the legendary Geto Boys — one of the most successful Southern hip-hop groups at a time when the spotlight was focused on East Coast and West Coast rap — and as a solo artist, he proved to be a last of a dying breed. His signature songs, like "I Seen a Die," off the five-mic, Source-certified classic album, The Diary, proved to listeners that there were more layers and depths to experience in rap.
As both a commercial chart-topper — his 1997 album, The Untouchable, reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart — and the ear of the streets nationwide, Scarface helped establish Houston as a certified rap capital and an early hotbed for innovative independent record labels. Beloved by fans, students of hip-hop and critics alike, 'Face has showcased what it means to craft a complete body of work that stands exemplary above its predecessors. He is one of the best at making the mood move within the melody. Beyond his platinum- and gold-certified album successes, he also excelled at mixing business acumen with artistic vision: As president of Def Jam South in the early 2000s, he helped foster the career of Ludacris and other rising Southern rappers. Today, his continued influence reaches modern veterans like the Game and next-gen stars like Isaiah Rashad alike. — Kevin L. Clark
Few music artists have showcased the versatility and decades-long career evolutions of prolific multihyphenate Snoop Dogg. Hailing from from Long Beach, California, his rap career took off in 1992 when his stepbrother Warren G, of "Regulate" fame, gave one of his mixtapes to Dr. Dre. Fresh off his stint with N.W.A, Dre recognized the young rapper's potential and invited him to the studio — where he was laying down tracks for The Chronic — for an audition. Snoop seized the moment and conquered: He's featured on 11 of the classic album's tracks, including the prolific hit single that would skyrocket him into the mainstream, "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang."
Still going strong decades later, the influential rapper has sold more than 37 million albums worldwide and has dropped 19 studio albums and countless cross-genre collabs. Snoop's laid-back persona and distinctive West Coast slang have become hallmarks of his music career. His expansion into other business and artistic pursuits, which include films, fast-food takeovers, and TV shows with lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, and impact on his community are among the main reasons he's maintained cultural relevance across three decades.
While his list of musical achievements is staggering, Snoop's greatest contribution to hip-hop lies in his ability to authentically infuse elements of his life into non-musical spaces. By simply staying true to himself, the legendary rapper has helped to further legitimize hip-hop as an art form with global impact and recognition, simultaneously influencing the music industry and people across international borders.
And he's even left his mark on the English language. Using his signature "izzle" style (e.g., "fo shizzle" meaing "for sure"), which originated in Northern California and was popularized by Bay Area rap acts like E-40 and 3X Krazy, Snoop has created a slew of catchy and memorable phrases. This rap "slanguage" development helped innovate distinct rap styles and solidified his place as an evolutionary icon. — Desiree Bowie
Soulja Boy made a lasting impact on hip-hop culture with his very first single. As one of the first in a wave of artists who used internet culture to market themselves directly to fans, the Chicago native created rap's first true internet sensation with "Crank That (Soulja Boy)." The song — fueled by simplistic lyrics, a catchy beat, and an inescapable hook — skyrocketed throughout the global internet via its complementary viral dance. Subverting the label-to-audience pipeline, Soulja Boy capitalized on tools like YouTube and MySpace to propel his popularity and connect with new listeners directly. Millions watched the song's music video on YouTube, where it has amassed more than 556 million views to date, and shared it widely on social media.
The innovative formula worked: "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for several weeks, set a record for the most digital downloads ever with more than 3 million units sold, and secured a GRAMMY nomination for Best Rap Song at the 2008 GRAMMYs.
Soulja Boy proved one-hit-wonder naysayers wrong. His second album, iSouljaBoyTellem, delivered 2000s classics like "Kiss Me Thru the Phone" featuring Sammie and "Turn My Swag On," while his grassroots tactic ushered in a new era of fan engagement and user-generated content, creating a formula still used by internet-savvy, next-gen artists like Lil Nas X and the wider music industry to market hip-hop hits today. — Victoria Moorwood
Virginia native Timbaland spent the mid- to late-'90s cultivating an experimental sound that blended futuristic drum patterns with unique sampling techniques. When he wasn't pushing sonic boundaries for R&B artists like Aaliyah and Ginuwine, the four-time GRAMMY winner proved his creativity could extend to hip-hop as well.
There isn't a better example than his legendary run of genre-busting albums produced for fellow Virginian trailblazer Missy Elliott, including Supa Dupa Fly, Da Real World, Miss E… So Addictive, and Under Construction. Timbaland even helped usher in the country rap subgenre thanks to his production work on the hip-hop/bluegrass fusion album Deliverance from Bubba Sparxxx. Eventually, he would expand far and wide across genres to create mega-hits with pop artists ranging from Nelly Furtado to Justin Timberlake. Between that time, he continued working with legendary rappers, including LL Cool J, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, Lil' Kim, and many more.
Throughout the years, he's worked on multiple classic albums, which have garnered Album of the Year GRAMMY nominations, including Beyoncé, Timberlake's Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds, The Diary Of Alicia Keys, and Elliott's Under Construction. Timbaland was also nominated for Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical at the 2008 GRAMMYs.
Now, Timbaland is making quality production easily available to aspiring artists and producers through his BeatClub service, showcasing how indispensible and intergenerational the creative mind of Timothy Mosley is to the culture. — Ural Garrett
Wu-Tang Clan was one of rap's seminal groups, both for their impact in the booth and in the boardroom. Enter The 36 Chambers, their 1993 debut album, saw superproducer RZA unite nine of the most unique personalities in rap ever for a lightning-in-a-bottle explosion. The crew traded nimble-footed bars and pro-Black philosophies over a discordant combination of rugged beats and samples from martial arts flicks, with each voice and rhyme style completely different from the last. But after their call to arms, they revolutionized the game with their business empires: The Wu was the first group to have its members sign solo deals with varying labels.
From there, they brought new meaning to the term divide and conquer: RZA, GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Cappadonna, and Masta Killa would each go on to drop classic records over the years, all of them earning varying spots in the rap hall of fame. In subsequent decades, they'd reunite on occasion to duplicate the group magic in new and creative ways.
After that, changing the game just became part of the Wu-Tang Clan playboook. Clothing lines, video games, TV shows — you name it and the Wu tried it, and likely surmounted it. In 2015, they created Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, a single-copy album that was sold off in an auction to a pharmacy exec for more than $1 million dollars … before that exec was arrested and imprisoned, with the record being seized by the government in the process. Oh well. Wu-Tang Clan has made history plenty of times, and before all is said and done, they'll likely do it again. — William E. Ketchum III
The below is a list of artists who we'd like to celebrate in addition to the artists featured in our 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list. Submitted by our industry panel, these honorable mentions have impacted hip-hop in ways that are immeasurable.
The Hot Boys
Three 6 Mafia
The artists featured on GRAMMY.com's 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list were compiled from artist submissions submitted by an industry panel of rap experts, which includes:
Andrew Barber, Owner, Fake Shore Drive
April Reign, Senior Advisor for Entertainment & Media, Gauge
Carl Chery, Creative Director, Head of Urban, Spotify
Datwon Thomas, Editor-In-Chief, VIBE
Jeff Weiss, Editor, Passion of the Weiss
Jeff and Eric Rosenthal, Co-owners, ItsTheReal
Justin Hunte, music360 journalist, BTSN
Justin Tinsley, Senior Sports and Culture Reporter, Andscape
Kathy Iandoli, Author of ‘God Save The Queens: The Essential History of Women In Hip-Hop’ and co-author of ‘Lil' Kim's The Queen Bee’
Kevin L. Clark, Subject To Change LLC, Producer / The Recording Academy/GRAMMY.com, Contributing writer
Mankaprr Conteh, Cultural Journalist and Rolling Stone Staff Writer
Meka Udoh, Co-founder, 2DopeBoyz / Ingrooves Music Group
Miles Marshall Lewis, Author
Naima Cochrane, Music & Culture Journalist
Roderick Scott, Vice President, Marketing Strategy, Republic Records
Shaheem Reid, Legendary journalist
Shamira Ibrahim, Culture writer & critic
Shawn Setaro, Freelance Writer and podcaster
Sowmya Krishnamurthy, Author of ‘Fashion Killa: How Hip-Hop Revolutionized High Fashion’
Ural Garrett, Freelance Journalist
William E. Ketchum III, Music & Culture Journalist
Yoh Phillips, Documentarian/music journalist, Rap Portraits
Zini Tahsini, Hip-Hop Editorial Programmer, Apple Music
GRAMMY.com's 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list was conceived and developed by:
John Ochoa: Managing Editor of Digital Media for the Recording Academy
Len Brown: Senior Project Manager of Awards and Rap, Reggae, and R&B Genre Manager for the Recording Academy