2005: JEEZY

CREDENTIALS: Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, Trap or Die, Boyz n da Hood

In 2004, Jeezy first made an impact outside of his native Atlanta, grabbing guest spots on songs by Fabolous and Trick Daddy, releasing his Tha Streets Iz Watchin mixtape, and dropping a video with Bun B titled “Over Here,” which prominently advertised—at least to those in the know—his Big Meech affiliation. But the following year, Jeezy took off, beginning with the growing buzz around his Trap or Die mixtape.

He first broke nationally on Gucci Mane’s “Icy” single, which, that same year, would become a source of conflict for both rappers. “Icy” was a smash, and Jeezy’s first true hit, even if Gucci denied him use of it for his Def Jam debut. At the time, Jeezy was especially invested in obtaining the single; his appeal had been grounded in distinctive ad-libs and a searing vocal style, one that seemed more concerned with blunt, overwhelming force, rather than the dexterity or diversity of previous Atlanta stars like T.I. More to the point, he didn’t have a certified hit.

Jeezy shouldn’t have worried. 2005 marked the moment he crossed over completely, becoming one of the genre’s biggest stars. He not only held his own but served as the charismatic center of Atlanta supergroup Boyz N Da Hood’s debut LP. The record featured the group’s biggest single, “Dem Boys,” with a high-profile endorsement from P. Diddy. Jeezy would be the group’s only breakout star.

As his Trap or Die mixtape continued to gain steam nationally, his debut LP, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, was released. Significantly, the album introduced the world to the trap house sound of Shawty Redd, whose shards of synthesizers were a revolutionary brittle reinvention of hip-hop’s soundscape. It marked the end of hip-hop’s biggest crossover era, as populist gangster rap adapted a more underground, oppositional sonic template, rather than the pop-friendly sounds it had adopted in the TRL era.

The album launched four charting singles, including “Soul Survivor,” which reached No. 4 on the Hot 100 and pushed Atlanta’s new brittle trap house sound onto the national stage. Even his soul-sampling “Go Crazy” broke through on the East Coast; the rapper managed to summon Jay Z and Fat Joe for verses on the remix. Young Jeezy’s totalitarian vision engulfed the country from the grassroots to the top.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: 50 Cent, Game, Common
50 Cent, meanwhile, released The Massacre, a commercial success but something of a critical disappointment. Songs like “Candy Shop” became massive crossover hits—at the expense of much of the support of his traditional hip-hop audience, who were relegated to enjoying album tracks like “Baltimore Love Thing” and “Ski Mask Way.” Nonetheless, these were incredible songs. In ’05, 50 was also responsible for some of the best tracks in his career, albeit under someone else’s name.

The Game’s debut, The Documentary, put him even more firmly in the conversation. The LP ultimately went double platinum after selling 586,000 copies in its opening week. “How We Do,” released in late November the previous year, continued to gain airplay, and the album’s third single, “Hate It or Love It,” was an even bigger success. Game’s success, though, was split with 50 Cent, who was a major part of both singles; ironically, Game ended up with the stronger release, but 50 had scene-stealing verses (and hooks) on the album’s biggest singles.

Common, meanwhile, released one of the best records of his career in Be, a major creative and unexpected commercial success. The rapper was signed to Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music label the previous year and appeared on The College Dropout. Produced primarily by Kanye West with an assist from the recently deceased J. Dilla, Common’s Be received 4.5 mics in The Source and an XXL rating from XXL. It also became the rapper’s second gold album, selling around 800,000 units. —David Drak

2006: LIL WAYNE


CREDENTIALS: 2005’s Tha Carter II, Like Father, Like Son, Dedication 2, barrage of guest verses including “Gimmie That,” “Make It Rain,” and “You”

At the tail end of 2005, Lil Wayne dropped his best solo LP, Tha Carter II. The album featured a cut called “Best Rapper Alive,” which seemed like another empty boast, but Wayne wasn’t being cocky—he just realized his arrival before the rest of us did. After Tha Carter II, Weezy started his absolutely ridiculous run, highlighted by Dedication 2 and his joint album with Birdman, Like Father, Like Son, both of which featured some of the best rapping of his soon-to-be illustrious career.

More importantly, his mastery on the mic gave him the confidence to feel his way through any beat and interact with it as he saw fit. Once he started experimenting with more and more styles, the results were fascinating. It wasn’t obvious then, but in retrospect he laid the groundwork for everyone’s favorite version of Tunechi: Coke Rapper Weezy, Drugged-Out Weezy, Mainstream Weezy, Mixtape Weezy, etc. With confidence came comfort, and with comfort Wayne’s personality shined through as he talked more about his love of SportsCenter, motorcycles, and all things New Orleans. His rhymes made him famous, but his “Murder the adults and let the kids get adopted” approach to fame made him a superstar.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: T.I., Pusha T, Lupe Fiasco
None of that should take anything away from T.I., who had a nearly flawless year as well. Despite his great output since 2003, T.I. always had an issue with finding the right balance between street anthems and pop hits (or as he put it, “T.I. vs TIP”). Prior to King he often leaned too far into the streets—despite his penchant for Billboard hits, songs like “You Don’t Know Me” didn’t quite cross over the way they should have. His later hits like “Live Your Life” were massive but leaned too far into pop territory. But 2006’s “What You Know” struck the perfect balance, as did his album King. Still, even if T.I. was the King of the South, he wasn’t the Best Rapper Alive.

However, Pusha T might have been the Best Coke Rapper Alive. Whatever it lacked in commercial appeal, Hell Hath No Fury made up for in cold, mechanical raps. Pusha iced every one of his bars with detached debauchery and delivered them like he was about to hawk a loogie. The keys had opened doors, and suddenly King Push had hit the coke rap zenith.

On the other end of the spectrum, Lupe Fiasco followed up his Fahrenheit 1/15 mixtape trilogy with his well-received debut, Food & Liquor. He might have been a newcomer, but as his impressive debut proved, he could tell engrossing stories with pinpoint precision, adjust his cadence ever so slightly to give his words greater weight, and still sell a modest amount of records. He not only kicked first-rate rhymes but pushed an image of a rapper more akin to Kanye than 50 Cent. A trend that would soon gain more momentum. —Insanul Ahmed

2007: KANYE WEST

CREDENTIALS: Graduation, beats 50 Cent in highly publicized sales battle, drops several huge hits, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Stronger,” “Good Life,” and “Homecoming”

Kanye West’s career had been building toward this moment all along. By 2007, the stars had aligned and Yeezy became the epicenter of hip-hop, both sonically and artistically. Despite releasing two stellar albums in 2004 and 2005, he was seen as a great producer and great songmaker but never a great MC. During the years when the rap zeitgeist was playing limbo with coke rappers, mixtape runs, and ringtone rap, Yeezy raised the bar up and got his bars up.

His humor was still present as he spit the most Kanye line ever: “I’m like the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary.” The real change was in Yeezy’s now fluent delivery. No longer did he flub verses with over exposition. Whatever his words lacked in humility they made up for in maturity. His vocal performance was now poised and patient, characteristics best seen on cuts like “Flashing Lights,” where he employed a delicate nuance to his rhymes where a younger Kanye might have gone for a ham-fisted approach.

Beyond his flow, ‘Ye dropped his best songs ever, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” and finally found what he always sorely lacked: a true street anthem. With “Stronger,” Yeezy scored arguably his biggest hit ever, another testament to his crossover appeal (and made Yeezy an early adapter to EDM).

Still, it felt like this was happening right under our noses. When Kanye got into a highly publicized sales battle with 50 Cent, many believed he stood no chance against Curtis. Little did they realize 50’s antics were starting to feel like an old Biggie line: “Fuck that beef shit, that shit is played out.” If you didn’t initially feel the winds of change, then you got hit with the whirlwind of Graduation.

The album outsold 50’s Curtis by a wide margin and not only proved Kanye was a cultural force but one who wasn’t willing to settle. The guy that executives once told to stick to producing was now the Best Rapper Alive. Kanye must have realized it, too. As much as people think Kanye is obsessed with himself, in truth he’s always been obsessed with challenging himself. That might have something to do with why, as soon as people finally accepted his rapping, he abandoned it to move on to singing.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Lil Wayne, Jay Z, André 3000
There was one incredibly frustrating thing about Graduation though: the Lil Wayne-assisted “Barry Bonds.” Not because it was a bad song but because Kanye outrapped the previous Best Rapper Alive so badly it felt like Wayne took a dive. We only say that because otherwise Weezy killed it in ’07, releasing about 100 songs.

The easy put down would have been “it was quantity over quality,” but that’s the thing about Wayne in his prime: Nearly everything he did was quality. There was always one random line or burst of flow that was worth hearing. The highlight was his spectacular double disc mixtape Da Drought 3, which found Wayne blacking out over one instrumental after another. The most significant cut was “Dough Is What I Got,” which had him rapping over Jay Z’s lackluster “Show Me What You Got.” The song finally proved the claims Wayne had made in Complex the previous year: “I”m better than Jay Z.”

Jay Z was having a resurgence of sorts as well. After seemingly losing a step after retiring and coming back with the disappointing Kingdom Come, Jay got inspired by the film American Gangster and dropped an album of the same name. He wasn’t rapping about anything he hadn’t rapped about 10 years before, but the fact that he found yet another way to say something we’d already heard and make it compelling remains one of his most under-appreciated achievements.

A slightly disappointing (in hindsight) event was the return of André 3000. 3 Stacks’ comeback—highlighted by a series of memorable guest verses—was ultimately a tease for a solo project that never materialized. Still, you couldn’t shake the feeling that every time he dropped a verse it became the most talked about 16 of any given moment. —Insanul Ahmed

2008: LIL WAYNE


CREDENTIALS: Tha Carter III, Dedication 3, four Top 20 singles off Tha Carter, “Love in This Club Part II,” “My Life,” “Can’t Believe It,” “Swagga Like Us,” “Turnin’ Me On”

Lil Wayne’s commercial, creative and cultural ascent reached its peak in 2008, the year he became a true crossover star and, without question, the greatest rapper alive. It had been two years since his last album, but Weezy had flooded the industry, releasing a succession of hot street tapes and guest verses.

First, his guest verses: Lil Wayne was a scene-stealing rap star, making his mark on T.I.’s “Swagga Like Us,” T-Pain’s “Can’t Believe It” (platinum) and Akon’s “I’m So Paid” (platinum). He also made his mark on R&B, turning up on Keri Hilson’s “Turnin’ Me On,” Lloyd’s “Girls Around the World” and Usher’s “Love in This Club II.”

But it was his work as a solo artist that made the biggest mark. Wayne managed to drop one of the best 12 inches in history with “A Milli”/”Lollipop.” The street single, “A Milli,” was a triumph of production ingenuity and lyrical invention; it reached No. 6 on the Hot 100. His radio single, the Static Major–assisted “Lollipop,” topped the pop charts, went five times platinum, and helped drive Carter III to 2.88 million in sales by the end of 2008, during one of the worst climates for selling records in industry history. Two other singles were released from this record; “Got Money” with T-Pain hit No. 10 and sold double platinum, while the platinum-selling “Mrs. Officer” reached No. 16.

By this point Weezy’s claim to be the greatest living rapper on Tha Carter II no longer seemed nearly so audacious. Tha Carter III was released in June 2008, three years after his last LP. Despite taking a “break” from official releases, his album went three times platinum, opening at No. 1 on Billboard and selling more than 1 million copies in its first week. It became the rapper’s best-selling album to that point. It was the first to reach 1 million in sales since The Massacre.

As impressive as the numbers were, though, what made Lil Wayne the greatest rapper alive in 2008 transcended popularity. He had broadened what was thought possible for a rapper. The boundaries of the genre were pushed to their logical breaking point. He was still rapping, retaining his innate cleverness and style, but had such intoxicated confidence that he didn’t need to live by the formal limitations adhered to by lesser MCs. And then, not content to rest on his laurels, he released Dedication 3, another mixtape with DJ Drama, before the year let out.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: T.I., Young Jeezy, Kanye West
Wayne’s competition in 2008, while strong, wasn’t coming close. Despite the relative flop of T.I. vs. T.I.P. the previous year (not to mention his legal travails), Tip picked up where he left off with King and stepped up his pop appeal. “Whatever You Like” became T.I.’s first No. 1 single that year, surpassing “What You Know,” which peaked at No. 3 in 2006. The album, Paper Trail, included two more major singles (including another No. 1 in “Live Your Life.”)

Young Jeezy, in the meantime, released his strongest record since Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 with The Recession. It was his second No. 1 LP. He also appeared on Usher’s “Love in This Club,” which would also find the top spot. He didn’t regain the widespread commercial appeal that he had on his debut record, but the album was a creative success, particularly after the disappointment of 2006’s The Inspiration.

Kanye West had a fairly low-key year in 2008, but in the wake of Graduation’s 2007 release, he remained one of hip-hop’s biggest stars. His final single from Graduation, “Homecoming,” was released, and he began working on his tortured melodic album 808s and Heartbreak. But as a rapper, he kept the flame alive with a series of hugely popular guest verses, appearing on Estelle’s “American Boy,” Young Jeezy’s “Put On,” and T.I.’s “Swagga Like Us.” —David Drake