2009: JAY Z

CREDENTIALS: The Blueprint III, first No. 1 hit of his career, 11th No. 1 album

In the wake of Lil Wayne’s utter domination of 2008, 2009 was, to say the least, a rebuilding year. Kanye had become an Auto-Tune performance artist. Lil Wayne began pushing his Young Money crew, and into the void came a rush of rookie artists from across the spectrum. Amidst all the confusion, a veteran stepped up and released the biggest single of his career.

When you’re the best rapper alive, and you release your most successful single ever, it’s hard for the mantle not to fall to you. While The Blueprint III may not have been a critical smash, the record was well-received, debuting at No. 1 on Billboard—Jay Z’s 11th album to do so—and eventually going platinum. Hov also proved that he’d retained his nimble technical abilities; love it or hate it, he was still the most envied rapper in hip-hop.

Part of that was a result of his business moves. After appearing at the president’s inauguration, Jay crossed over in a way no rapper had previously, unless you count Eazy-E’s visit to the White House. He left his job as president of Def Jam and signed a $150 million deal with Live Nation to launch Roc Nation. But after all is said and done it all comes down to the music.

While his first single, “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” had some chart success (despite its obvious failings as prophecy), its follow-up singles were two of the biggest of Jay’s career. “Run This Town” was a crossover smash, hitting No. 2 on the charts. Then the monster that was “Empire State of Mind” took over, becoming Jay’s biggest-ever hit and sitting atop the Billboard charts for five consecutive weeks. There are few acts able to retain that level of success this deep into a career, but for Jay, even in the twilight era, consistency has been his trademark.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Kanye West, Drake, Gucci Mane
Kanye West had a relatively low-profile year, but made his impact felt in a burst of high-profile guest spots: “Knock You Down” with Keri Hilson, which peaked at No. 3 on Billboard, “Walking on the Moon” with The-Dream, “Make Her Say” with Kid Cudi, “Forever” with Drake, and a scene-stealing spot on Jay-Z’s “Run This Town.”

Drake, meanwhile, had begun to show signs that he was really about to be that successful. His So Far Gone EP was released in late 2009, and “Best I Ever Had” became his first legitimate smash, topping the hip-hop charts and reaching No. 2 on the Hot 100. “Successful,” “Forever,” and “I’m Goin In,” all of which charted well, rounded out his accomplishments for the year, the first where it became evident that a star was born.

Rounding out the honorable mentions is Gucci Mane, easily the most prolific artist on this list. He rose up from his rabble-rousing grassroots, flooding the market without over-saturating it, releasing a handful of mixtapes that are now considered classics, including Writings on the Wall and Burrrprint: The Movie 3D, while his singles “Wasted” and “Lemonade” had considerable chart traction. —David Drake


CREDENTIALS: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, G.O.O.D. Fridays series, guest spots on “Live Fast, Die Young,” “Deuces Remix,” and “Start It Up”

Can we get much higher? In 2010, Kanye West made a triumphant return to rapping full time. Lost in the hype of his post-Swiftgate comeback was the fact that Kanye wasn’t just the best rapper alive but also the best rapper he’s ever been. Yeezy reached the height of his technical proficiency. Gone were the pesky lapses of supreme competency where he uttered “Funny when you thought of them but only to you” type lines. Instead it was all genuine wit with rhymes like “Got caught with 30 rocks the cop looked like Alec Baldwin.”

Instead of imploding within the glass house of his fame (as many thought he would/already had) he furnished his persona with even more honesty and soul-searching to create one of the most vivid portraits of superstardom rap had ever seen. Ye’s G.O.O.D. Friday releases kept him consistently anticipated week to week, and when My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy finally did arrive it was hailed as an instant classic and arguably Kanye’s best album.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Eminem
Ironically, despite rapping at a higher level throughout the year, the two best verses on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy weren’t from Kanye. Instead, he was able to coax inspired performances from Nicki Minaj and Rick Ross, the latter of whom saw his growth as a rapper reach its apex on “Devil in a New Dress.” Ross was never perceived as a great lyricist until Deeper Than Rap won him the award for Most Improved Rapper. But the nearly flawless Teflon Don—supercharged with the street anthem of the year “B.M.F.”—saw Rozay’s��once sluggish elocution evolve into a fluid dynamo. The guy who was once clowned for rhyming “Atlantic” with “Atlantic” was suddenly keeping multis on deck with lines like, “Young and radical, methods are mathematical/I multiplied my money through different avenues.”

Yet, the verse of the year belonged to Nicki Minaj, whose manic energy on “Monster” took her from buzzing to being invited on stage with Jay Z and Kanye West at Yankee Stadium. Chilling backstage while Jay, ‘Ye, and Nicki performed “Monster,” a rejuvenated Eminem was returning to the forefront of the rap conversation after kicking his drug habit, abandoning the accents, and dropping the well received Recovery. —Insanul Ahmed

2011: DRAKE

CREDENTIALS: Take Care, non-album cuts like “Club Paradise” and “Dreams Money Can Buy,” guest spots like “I’m on One,” “Tony Montana (Remix),” and “Round of Applause”

Bill Simmons once called LeBron James the car wash “everything” package, saying, “You see an athlete get handed the ‘everything’ package maybe only five times in your life.” Drake is like the LeBron of rap (albeit with more hair), and he can seemingly do anything: rap, sing, craft projects, create a soundscape, and drop meme-worthy lines.

When Drake emerged on the scene in 2009 he was more than just a rapper with crossover potential—just like LeBron is more than a 6’8″ dude with a jump shot—he was a rapper with superstar potential. So Far Gone put Drake on the map in ’09, and his 2010 debut album, Thank Me Later, was released in a stacked hip-hop year. But Drake didn’t claim his championship ring until 2011 rolled around.

After the dust of 2010 settled, Drake unceremoniously started rolling out songs on his OVO blog. Every release, from “Dreams Money Can Buy” to “Club Paradise” to “Marvin’s Room,” instantly became an event—and some of the most discussed songs of the year. So much so that end-of-the-year Best of lists had to leave off Drake cuts, lest he overwhelm the lists by the sheer quantity of his quality output.

Drake was so hot he gave away that year’s summer anthem and one of his best songs ever to DJ Khaled (“I’m on One”) and it didn’t even hurt the quality of his album, Take Care. Coming late that year, his sophomore set showed that Drizzy had many skills but his greatest gift was his ability to internalize his struggles and make them universal. Call it “emo” if you like, but feeling regret over a lost lover, feeling proud of your accomplishments, and feeling like you’re the best but still have 10 years left is what we ought to expect from brash young men. With Take Care, we finally got to witness the full breadth of his undeniable talent. Suddenly, the throne was no longer for the taking.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Rick Ross, Jay Z, Kanye West
After ascending into the Best Rapper Alive conversation (to everyone’s surprise) the year before, Rick Ross became a powerhouse in 2011. Similar to 50 Cent in 2004, Ross didn’t put out a ton of solo material, but his Ashes to Ashes mixtape was released in the closing days of 2010 and carried into 2011 as he prepped Maybach Music Group’s Self Made Vol. 1.

And yes, it is still Jay before ‘Ye because even as Yeezy handled much of the Watch the Throne aesthetics and delivered some great verses, Kanye stepped aside as Jay bodied tracks like “Love You So,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “Who Gone Stop Me?” on his own. —Insanul Ahmed

2012: DRAKE


CREDENTIALS: 2011’s Take Care, barrage of guest verses: “Stay Schemin’,” “No Lie,” “Amen,” “Pop That,” “Fuckin’ Problems”

Even in an off year, Drake was on one. Take Care dropped late in 2011, so Drizzy was able to ride excellent singles like “HYFR,” “Take Care,” and “The Motto” in 2012, which made him a consensus pick for Best Rapper Alive honors by themselves. And even without those songs Drake was still an omnipotent force in hip-hop who dominated the rap conversation.

Jay Z once boasted, “For the right price I can even make yo shit tighter.” In 2012, Drake didn’t just make people’s songs tighter, he became a kingmaker. Drizzy unleashed one monster guest verse after another and gave away Billboard hits that introduced buzzing artists to a wider audience. Rule of thumb: You’re definitely in the Best Rapper Alive conversation if people will listen to any artist’s song just because you’re on it. And if you can make any song you’re on a possible anthem, then you probably are the Best Rapper Alive.

There’s a certain arrogance to the way Drizzy effortlessly bequeathed bangers to 2 Chainz, A$AP Rocky, and French Montana as if he had an endless stash of hits to give (who knows, maybe he does?). To understand his impact, consider that even throwaway lines like “Good ain’t good enough” sparked intense debate about perceived shots at G.O.O.D. Music. More importantly, consider that if Drake had strapped together all his major guest verses and added a couple of strong solo cuts, he would’ve had a third album better than most rap releases last year.

Honorable Mentions: Kendrick Lamar, 2 Chainz, Rick Ross
We have no knock against Kendrick Lamar but are obliged to point out that he was relatively quiet for most of 2012 before dropping good kid, m.A.A.d. city. However, last year more and more fans got hip to his stellar 2011 release, Section.80. Still, most were left wondering if K-Dot could pull off a classic debut. But more on that later.

Meanwhile, 2 Chainz’ momentum from 2011’s T.R.U. REALigion hit its mainstream peak in 2012 as casual fans got hip to “Spend It.” Chainz also went on a guest verse killing spree, which reached its climax when he spit the verse of the year on G.O.O.D. Music’s “Mercy” and had Kanye telling him to start charging 100K for a 16. You know you’re having a special year when you not only spit the last verse on the premier posse cut but Kanye is the one who throws up the alley.

Although Rick Ross’ album God Forgives, I Don’t debuted at No. 1, it failed to deliver the goods. Not that it really mattered. Ross still ran the rap game with an iron fist and gave us Rich Forever, one of his best overall projects, at the top of the year. Still, for the first time since 2009, it felt like Rozay’s reach wasn’t continually expanding but contracting ever so slightly. —Insanul Ahmed