Hip hop has been one of the most popular genres globally for decades. Many of the world’s most successful artists make hip hop music, and the genre has been at the forefront of a number of key social and political movements in modern history.
Hip hop is an incredibly diverse genre, and many hip hop artists also cross over into other genres such as R&B, trap and grime. This means that it can be hard to define what a hip hop track even sounds like, let alone choose the very best of the best.
Despite just how many great hip hop tracks there are to consider, some rise above the rest to be considered key parts of music history. For diehard hip hop fans or those looking to better understand the genre, here are the 21 best hip hop songs ever.
Best Hip Hop Songs Ever
This classic banger from Missy Elliott inspires the listener to move. Elliott has said that the song doesn’t have an specific meaning – whatever the listener wants to get their freak on over, they should! Produced with Timbaland, the track has Bhangra influences, giving it a very different sound from Elliott’s competitors and helping it to stand out.
“This album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’,” declares Notorious B.I.G. at the beginning of ‘Juicy’. He also shouts out those who called the police on him when he was trying to provide for his family, and to everyone struggling like he once was.
‘Juicy’ describes his hard early life and how success in music has completely transformed it. He still hadn’t had a huge hit by this point though – until ‘Juicy’ became that first big track that launched him to stardom.
Featured in Eminem’s first movie, 8 Mile, ‘Lose Yourself’ is the blood-pumping story of a man grabbing hold of his one shot to make something of himself. Nearly falling victim to stage fright, the performer struggles to remember his lyrics before figuring out how to lose himself in the music and take hold of this golden opportunity.
Even though he was playing a character in 8 Mile, Eminem wanted the music to come from a personal place. ‘Lose Yourself’ was the result of an exploration of the similarities between him and his character. Previously ‘Cleanin’ Out My Closet’ was used in place of ‘Lose Yourself’, but Eminem felt that the track was too personal and wanted to find more of a middle ground between his real life and the life of his character.
Nas paints a grim and gripping picture of New York in this classic hip hop track. Describing a city overrun by gangs and gun violence, he explains what it takes to survive in these communities and everything he learnt about how to protect himself. “I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind,” he raps.
Method Man’s hook – “Cash rules everything around me” – is a piece of hip hop history that has firmly embedded itself in pop culture. Describing what it is to grow up poor and black in America, the Clan describe the importance of money and what everyone around them is doing to try and improve their circumstances. The group want to “kick the truth to the young black youth” and speak openly about what this group faces.
The title track from the hip hop group’s debut album, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ sees MC Ren, Eazy-E and Ice Cube documenting gangsta culture in south-central Los Angeles. The group are keen not to gloss over the realities of life in Compton and communities like it, but to make it clear to the rest of the world what it’s actually like to grow up in these conditions and what young people are forced to do to survive.
This 1990s offering from LL Cool J sees the rapper assume a confrontational image where he’s prepared to step up to anyone who questions him. The song’s violent imagery is actually a metaphor for the rapper rising to the top of the rap game and staying there.
The title of the track actually comes from LL Cool J’s grandmother: when the rapper found himself struggling with his lyrics, his grandmother advised him simply to “knock them out”. ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ won LL Cool J a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance.
Based on a sample from ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ by Lou Reed, ‘Can I Kick It?’ is a fairly laid-back track compared to many of the songs on this list. The beat is built a sampled acoustic guitar, with the group rapping over the top about their love for their craft.
Even though ‘Can I Kick It?’ remains a very successful track, the group never received royalties from the song. Due to the Lou Reed sample, Reed was the only one who made money off the track, which he never redistributed to A Tribe Called Quest.
50 Cent raps about how the club is his natural environment in his breakout track. It was his first signed to Dr Dre and Eminem’s Shady/Aftermath label, and his debut single on the Hot 100 chart, so popular that some DJs started playing it twice in a row in clubs. The music video sees 50 Cent going through Shady/Aftermath training to become Dre and Eminem’s next star (which he eventually did).
In ‘Ms Jackson’, Outkast address a woman who feels her daughter has been treated badly and explain that they only ever had good intentions. The song was very personal to rapper Andre 3000, who wrote it as an open letter to the mother of singer Erykah Badu.
Andre had fathered a child with Badu and felt that Badu had kept him away from the baby and made him out to be a terrible father. He wanted Badu’s mother to know his side of the story.
Jay-Z’s updated version of Ice-T’s original 1993 track doesn’t focus on the braggadocio of all the girls he has around him, but the other 99 problems that he’s facing. He discusses all the difficulties he has with his various ventures in music, clothing and other areas, as well as the challenge of being young and black in America. However, his love life isn’t a problem for him – he’d recently started dating Beyoncé.
Jay-Z sang this track at Glastonbury in 2008 – but not performing Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’. He opened with the track as a retort to the Noel Gallagher, who called Jay-Z’s billing at the festival “wrong”.
The popular club track sees Kanye West complain about a girl who seems to have a very particular type. “I ain’t saying she a gold digger,” he says, before acknowledging that the girl isn’t hanging around with anyone who isn’t making a lot of money.
He goes on to describe the woman’s pattern of having kids with men and then forcing them to pay her a lot of money in child support, before shouting out the women who stick with their partners even in times of financial distress and don’t reap the rewards.
‘Gold Digger’ samples Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman’. However, the intro features Jamie Foxx doing an impersonation of Charles, changing the lyrics from “She give me money when I’m in need,” to “She take my money.”
“I’m that b*tch,” Megan Thee Stallion reminds listeners in the intro to ‘Savage’. “Been that b*tch, still that b*tch, will forever be that b*tch.” Megan lets her personality out to play on this energetic rap track, which sees her cheerfully describing what makes her so irresistible. The lyrics came easily to Megan – after the beat was sent to her, she had her vocals down within an hour.
‘Savage’ was one of the earliest songs to inspire a viral dance trend on TikTok. After choreographer Keara Wilson created a dance to the song, the track charted worldwide, with Megan herself jumping on the trend. Megan later released a remix of the track featuring Beyoncé.
Minaj settles once and for all that she can stack up to any man in rap with ‘Barbie Dreams’, as she cycles through all the biggest players in the game and describes what a night with each of them would be like. The tongue-in-cheek power play sees her taking playful shots at the likes of Drake, Meek Mill and DJ Khaled.
‘Barbie Dreams’ is a reconstruction of a Notorious B.I.G. track called ‘Just Playing (Dreams)’, in which Notorious B.I.G. talks about having sex with prominent women in music at the time. Minaj flips the original track on its head over the same beat.
‘Gin and Juice’ is a party cocktail in this classic Snoop Dogg track. The best way that Snoop can think of to get the celebrations started is to sip some gin and juice and smoke some ‘indo’. This was only Snoop Dogg’s second single, but thanks to features on Dr Dre’s The Chronic album, he was already well-established in the industry.
Lamar wants his fellow rappers to learn some humility and respect his position as one of the best in the game. Whilst he feels that other rappers get intoxicated and “let the meds talk”, he speaks from the soul.
He tells them to “sit down” and “be humble”, calling out those who Photoshop themselves and brag about their connections. He reminds them that he isn’t flaunting his relationships with powerful people – like his friendship with President Obama.
Over a beat created by producer Shondrae “Mr Bangladesh” Crawford, Lil Wayne talks being a young millionaire and having his mind focused on making his money. This track was almost entirely a freestyle from Lil Wayne, with basically no hook, instead taking a stream of consciousness format.
The young rapper making waves with Gen Z released this track about being in a vibe in 2023. Ice Spice is feeling herself in this track and she isn’t going to let anyone mess it up. “She lit, get money too,” she raps. She isn’t interested in answering her boyfriend’s texts as long as she’s enjoying herself this much.
Dre’s comeback track, ‘Still D.R.E.’ lets everyone know that the rapper is back on top and better than ever. He references how, in time he’s been away, he’s been building an empire and has even signed Eminem, who is now a world-famous recording star. Jay-Z worked on this track, studying Dre and Snoop’s work to write the perfect rhymes for them.
‘It Was A Good Day’ celebrates everything that’s going right in Ice Cube’s life. Despite focusing on the aftermath of the LA riots for much of his Predator album, Ice Cube wanted to also highlight the positivity that his music has brought him and everything he’s achieved in his career. The track became Ice Cube’s most popular song, despite the ambiguous ending that suggests everything isn’t so good after all.
The history of hip hop is long and storied, and there’s hundreds of tracks that could be in consideration for a ‘best of’ list. That said, these twenty-one songs give an overview of some of the genres most important moments, from classic tracks to popular new voices. Hip hop is always evolving, and new artists are cropping up all the time with their own important messages or unique voices. But no matter how many new hits there are in the next decades, these songs will always be considered great.
Caitlin Devlin is a music, entertainment and lifestyle writer based in London. When she’s not creating playlists for Repeat Replay, she’s reviewing gigs and interviewing artists for Ticketmaster UK and thinking about what her Spotify Wrapped will look like this year.