2001: JAY Z

CREDENTIALS: 2000’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, The Blueprint, Jay-Z: Unplugged, guest spots on “Do My” and “Fiesta (Remix),” epic beef with Nas

Where’s the love? Until The Blueprint, it didn’t seem like hip-hop realized what it had in Jay Z. On Vol. 1, he claimed the city was his, a place where “Niggas pull your card and argue all day about/Who’s the best MC, Biggie, Jay Z, or Nas.” On Vol. 2, he hit the pop charts, becoming one of the most commercially successful artists in hip-hop and helping to make Def Jam one of 1998’s biggest success stories.

But what remained evasive was critical respect. The previous year, Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella label compilation, Dynasty, stood apart, thanks to its heavy use of soul samples. In 2001, the era of Swizz Beats’ triton soundclash and Mannie Fresh’s technoid textures, Just Blaze, Bink!, and Kayne West helped Jay Z push a new sonic agenda that changed the game.

At the same time that The Blueprint changed hip-hop’s musical blueprint, Jay achieved the critical adulation he’d been previously denied. He made that stride explicit throughout: “Reasonable Doubt, classic, should have went triple,” he argued on “Blueprint (Momma Loves Me),” and “Do you fools listen to music, or do you just skim through it?” on “Renegade.”

The record received 5 mics from The Source, an XXL rating from XXL, and went double platinum, with the lead single “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” reaching the top 10. It was no longer “Politics as Usual”; instead, he mastered the politics of the game, appearing with the Roots on an episode of MTV Unplugged, a chain banging against the Che Guevara T-shirt on his chest, and claimed the New York throne, vacated since the passing of the Notorious B.I.G. With Nas and Mobb Deep dispatched in a few quick verses on “The Takeover,” hip-hop was his.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Eminem, Ludacris, Jadakiss
The closest competition for Jigga came from Eminem, who (very arguably) bested him on “Renegade.” The Marshall Mathers LP, released the previous year, was still a sales juggernaut, well on its way to a rare diamond sales plaque. Em spent much of 2001 doing live shows, including his much-reported embrace with Elton John at the 2001 Grammys. He also headlined the Anger Management tour, and he participated in both the Up in Smoke and Family Values tours as well, solidifying his fanbase in both hip-hop and hard rock circles.

Ludacris hit his stride in 2001, following his three-times platinum debut LP with the three-times platinum Word of Mouf. The LP included hit singles “Area Codes” and “Rollout (My Business),” his highest-charting single to that point. He also killed it as a featured rapper (“One Minute Man” for Missy Elliott and “Bia Bia” for Lil Jon). Jadakiss, for his part, was able to parlay a series of incredible singles (“We Gonna Make It,” “Knock Yourself Out,” and “Put Your Hands Up”) into a celebrated solo debut, Kiss tha Game Goodbye. —David Drake

2002: EMINEM

CREDENTIALS: The Eminem Show, 8 Mile Soundtrack, three top five hits, had the best-selling album of the year across all genres

Everything you need to know about where Eminem was in 2002 you can hear in the second verse of “Till I Collapse.” He hit the scene in 1999 and became the illest rapper to hold the cordless, so by 2002 his tremendous talent was unquestionable (“You’re real and you spit and people are feeling your shit”). So much so he realized he was living through his prime (“This is your moment, and every single minute you spend trying to hold onto it ’cause you may never get it again”) and began thinking about his place in hip-hop’s pantheon, worried he’d never get the props he felt he deserved. People tend to get caught up in the fact that Em named Redman (Reggie) ahead of Jay and Biggie in his infamous list, but really the most crucial detail is that Em lists himself last. He was as high as he’d ever get but still looking for another hit, on top but still unsatisfied.

Regardless of what ideas were floating around Em’s head, he dropped another monster album that year with The Eminem Show. The record didn’t top his previous effort creatively but still managed to be one of his more accessible albums (at least for hip-hop heads), which for once pitted his lyrics against a backdrop closer to hip-hop’s sonic center—laying bare just how many light years ahead of the average rapper he was.

Yet, that album might not have even been his greatest achievement that year. With the release of the loose biopic, 8 Mile, Slim Shady became an unlikely people’s champ, the rap Rocky. The first single to the film’s soundtrack, “Lose Yourself,” became Eminem’s biggest hit ever and one of his best songs. “Lose Yourself” encapsulated what made Em so special. It was a rap song about the physical act of rapping, proving that Eminem was and would always be a rapper’s rapper, a true student of Rakim. Yet, thanks to his songwriting skills it was also a massive pop hit and had middle Americans who would otherwise never interact with rap chanting along. There may be unwelcome side effects to that (as seen by the burgeoning number of white rappers), but Em still spread the gospel of hip-hop and did it in the most authentic way possible.

It was only a short while after this that Chris Rock would point out that the best golfer was black, the tallest basketball player was Chinese, and the best rapper was indeed white.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: 50 Cent, Cam’ron, Nas
2002 can also be remembered as the last truly great year for New York hip-hop since all the honorable mentions hail from the Big Apple. After ingesting nine slugs from a 9mm, Curtis Jackson licked his wounds and hit the streets to redefine what a mixtape could be. He became the first rapper to flood the market in a modern way that wasn’t really possible (or expected) previously. By the end of the year, he was signed with the best rapper alive, the best thing to ever happen to bootleggers, and he had already proved his soon-to-be unstoppable Billboard prowess with “Wanksta.” Suddenly, the title of his mixtape, 50 Cent Is the Future, wasn’t posturing. It was prophecy.

Yet the early part of the year belonged to a Harlem rapper known for his unusual affinity for the color pink. Cam’ron joined the Roc and didn’t disappoint when he made two huge hits, first “Oh Boy” and then “Hey Ma.” The songs gave Cam national exposure, helped score him a platinum plaque for Come Home With Me, and jump started the Dipset movement. (In between he also wrote Purple Haze, as the intro to that album points out.) Finally, following the personal hardship after the loss of his mother and a moment of clarity after beefing with Jay Z, Nas regained the visceral firepower to bring it back to the streets of New York. He continued his path as one of New York’s finest with the release of God’s Son and its top-notch single, “Made You Look.” —Insanul Ahmed

2003: 50 CENT

CREDENTIALS: Get Rich or Die Tryin’, back to back No. 1 hits with “In da Club” and “21 Questions,” guest spots on “Magic Stick,” “We All Die One Day,” and “The Realest Killaz,” and the merciless destruction of Ja Rule’s career

Only one year prior to the release of Get Rich or Die Tryin’, no one could have predicted 50’s rise. Roc-A-Fella was on top; Cam’ron was rapidly becoming one of the biggest rappers in New York, ready to succeed Jay Z on the back of massive singles “Oh Boy” and “Hey Ma.” Jay Z was coming off the most celebrated release of his career and was about to release an ambitious double album. And 50’s fellow Queens-repping street rapper Ja Rule was dominating the charts with a series of hip-hop ballads.

50’s career, meanwhile, was in stasis; labels wouldn’t touch him and thought he was a danger to himself, and more importantly to their bottom line. Columbia was wary before the shooting; songs like “Ghetto Qu’ran,” which controversially detailed the history of Queens gangsters (“Don’t be surprised/How freely I throw out names of guys who dealt with pies”) and “How to Rob,” a song-length threat to jack every rapper in the game, had already stirred up controversy. In 2000, 50 was stabbed in a conflict with rapper Ja Rule’s entourage. He was shot and survived an infamous attempt on his life that same year. Who knew what other kinds of trouble he could get into? Columbia promptly dropped him, and his debut record, Power of the Dollar, was shelved.

But the labels missed out on what made those songs resonate. As a rapper, 50 was ruthless and fearless. And more importantly, he was both of those things more convincingly than Jay Z, who had begun to make moves toward critical respectability and retirement.

And then 50 Cent began releasing mixtapes. At the beginning of June 2002 came 50 Cent Is the Future; the title was prophetic, and buzz built quickly. It became readily apparent that not only did 50 Cent have a brash street-friendly presence, but he had an ear for melodic hooks. His tapes reinvented pop music for a street audience. Meanwhile, his slurred rap style had a national appeal, which enabled his verses to fit in well with the drawled Southern rappers who had begun to break out in Houston and Atlanta.

Around the same time, a copy of 50’s Guess Who’s Back? CD—a compilation of tracks recorded during the sessions for the unreleased Power of a Dollar LP for Columbia—found its way into Eminem’s hands. Rumors that summer spread; 50 Cent was signed to Interscope for a reported $1 million. Dr. Dre would helm the project. 50 released another mixtape, No Mercy, No Fear, the title of which advertised his selling points. Here was a rapper who seemed part artist, part action hero.

Coming on a wave of hype, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was the most anticipated rap debut since Doggystyle. Released in February 2003, the album dominated the year, becoming one of hip-hop’s best-selling albums. By the end of that year, it had gone six-times platinum. It reoriented the entire genre toward street rap’s hard edge, spawned a pair of No. 1 singles (“In da Club” and “21 Questions”), and a third that could “only” manage No. 3 (“P.I.M.P.”). It also launched the careers of his entire crew, was Grammy-nominated, and became a full-on pop culture phenomenon.

Meanwhile, his long-simmering beef with Ja Rule and Murda Inc. boiled over with the release of 50’s “Realest Killas,” which explicitly accused Ja Rule of biting 2Pac. Ja had commercial success on his side prior to ’03, but at that moment, 50 successfully got under his skin. Ja Rule released a slew of diss tracks in response, culminating in 2003’s diss album Blood in My Eye. The album was a commercial flop, relative to his previous releases; 50 Cent’s debut, meanwhile, continued to spiral upward, ultimately selling more than eight million copies.

Jay Z’s retirement record, The Black Album, puts him at No. 2 on the list. He boasted that he was the “best rapper alive” at this point, and it was arguable in 2003; but his problem has always been a long-term consistency, and in spite of the top 10 success of single “Change Clothes” and standout guest verses on “Beware of the Boys,” “Crazy in Love,” and “Frontin,” it wasn’t enough to compete with the 50 Cent juggernaut.

Eminem, always in contention in this era, released three singles from the previous year’s The Eminem Show, two of which charted in the top 20 on Billboard. He also had high-profile collaborations on albums by 50 Cent and Obie Trice, including the incredible posse cut “We All Die One Day.”

Finally, T.I. recovered from his debut’s flop and built buzz in the streets of Atlanta through a series of mixtapes and the smash underground single “24s.” His scene-stealing guest verse on “Never Scared” grabbed the nation’s attention, and his comeback LP, Trap Muzik, was released. It sold modestly at first, but in time it has become recognized as a Southern hip-hop classic. —David Drake

2004: T.I.

CREDENTIALS: Urban Legend, the slow burn of 2003’s Trap Muzik, Down With the King, guest spots on “Soldier,” “Goodies (Remix),” and “Stomp,” ends Lil Flip’s career

T.I.’s classic Trap Muzik came out in August 2003 and sold modest initial numbers on the strength of the single “24s,” which made it into the lower reaches of the Hot 100. On the album, T.I. proclaimed himself “King of the South,” a title that sparked controversy. The second single, “Be Easy,” found little chart traction, but in 2004, Tip released “Rubber Band Man,” a David Banner-produced pop-banger that shot up the Hot 100 and peaked at No. 30.

Tip’s buzz began to build on a national level in earnest. Unlike much of the competition in Atlanta and the rest of the South at the time, Tip balanced his unapologetically Southern drawl with a lyrical focus. As difficult as it was to hear much of a New York influence in his drawling syllables, the rapper had an elastic double-time flow and unquestionably deft rhythmic control that ran circles around the competition; witness his guest spot on 2004’s “Look at the Grillz,” which gives co-guest-star Twista a run for his money.

His rising profile was briefly tempered by legal problems in March 2004, when the rapper was sentenced to three years for a probation violation. Luckily for him, he was work-released after only a month. While Tip was behind bars, rumors spread that rapper Lil Flip had disrespected the MC at a performance, a response to T.I.’s claims that he was “King of the South” on Trap Muzik. An on-wax beef was sparked between the two rappers, one that would later result in a real-world confrontation in Houston. T.I.’s evisceration of Flip’s career came on 2004’s Down with the King, most effectively in its opening moments, when T.I. remixed “99 Problems.”

As his final single from Trap Muzik, “Let’s Get Away,” rose up the Hot 100, Tip prepared for the release of his third album, Urban Legend. The record sold 193,000 copies its first week, besting his previous release, and lead single “Bring ‘Em Out” became his highest-charting single to that point, breaking into the top 10.

Meanwhile, he nabbed a guest spot on one of the year’s biggest hits, joining an ascendant Lil Wayne on “Soldier,” a Destiny’s Child single that hit No. 3 on Billboard and went platinum. He also appeared on Young Buck’s “Stomp,” Jim Jones “End of the Road,” and Lil Jon’s epic posse cut “Grand Finale” with blistering verses.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: 50 Cent, Cam’ron, Game
50 Cent, meanwhile, was still riding high off of the success of his debut album; his only solo single, however, was “Disco Inferno,” which didn’t receive quite the acclaim as the singles from his previous record. His work with G-Unit, however, was more promising. Lloyd Banks and Young Buck were able to ride his coattails to strong sales, and Game was first introduced with singles “Westside Story” and, in particular, “How We Do,” one of the strongest singles in 50’s catalog. But relative to T.I., who was emerging as one of hip-hop’s brightest stars, 50 had moved to a background role.

Cam’ron, in the meantime, prepared to follow up his crossover smash Come Home With Me and translate the modest success of the Diplomats to his own solo record. Purple Haze underperformed relative to its predecessor, but the album was a critical success, and its singles remain classics in the Cam’ron canon—even if, per the album’s intro, they were originally recorded in 2002.

Meanwhile, Game’s buzz, aided by a 50 Cent cosign and the aforementioned “How We Do” and “Westside Story” singles, became an undeniable story, one he would better be able to deliver upon when The Documentary dropped the following year. —David Drake