Welcome to our first of many lists where we rank the best rap verses of the year. We’re kicking things off by reviewing the best of 2020. Let these verses and songs be a reminder that there are some good things that were born out of the pandemic.
These verses were selected and ranked based primarily on the following criteria: lyrical expression, originality, flow/aesthetic, and cohesiveness. The weight given to each criterion varies from song to song, which rewards songs that perform excellently on any particular aspect.
Limiting to five verses per year is an extremely difficult task, and there’s no doubt we missed some excellent verses. Please share the verses you think we missed—and general feedback—in the comments. We also have a list of honorable mentions, and a full playlist below.
Top 5 Rap Verses of 2020
1. Black Mirror – Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire – Second Verse
Madlib made the beat and Mr. eXquire penned heartfelt and vivid lyrics about his uncles that raised him. The second verse is about Mr. eXquire’s uncle “Shango” who passed away a couple weeks before the song was released, and who eXquire calls “the definition of a gangster,” the funniest guy he knew, and his best friend. The song’s lyrics portray fond memories, life lessons learned, and a timeless bond between the artist and his idol. Throughout the song, eXquire gracefully details portraits of his uncle: “Buck the heat I would watch him lick war wounds from drug beef, Twist the cap off his Old English with his teeth, Isaac Hayes “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” on repeat, Uncle Pop Coney Island legend, Bing Monster, Black Panther ’97 went to war with the Aryans, killed the chicken with his bare hands, plucked it and boiled it to feed the fam and he was only eleven then.” The song has a throwback vibe, and eXquire’s lyrics are reminiscent of legendary New York rappers from the 90’s, like Raekwon and GZA.
2. Ezekiel’s Wheel – Jay Electronica – Second Verse
Jay Electronica’s A Written Testimony showcases hip hop royalty through authoritative rapping over rich aristocratic production. On his debut studio album, he and Jay Z trade verses throughout the album, many of which could have easily made our top 5 list. But it’s Jay Electronica’s creative and relaxed rapping on the second verse of Ezekiel’s Wheel that stands out the most. The slant rhymes and made-up suffixes are both catchy and genius: “Look, it could be the dance floor or right in your building lobby, It could be in Lagos or Seattle or Chicag-y, Hotel lobby Grammy after party, it’s what-avi, I’m down to catch a body, I drop a gear, I disappear, then re-appear, Then dump the clutch and wheelie down the highway, My debut, album featurin’ Hov, man, this is highway robbery.” Then later on he rhymes party with toilet with historic, and makes us believe those words actually rhyme. In the last few bars of the verse, Jay Electronica adds a guttural snarl to emphasize his lyrics, and reminds us for a second time that he’s giving us that wasabi.
3. 12:38 – Childish Gambino – First Verse
Childish Gambino’s opening verse is a song in and of itself. We actually ranked it the 9th best song of 2020: Flexing his storytelling muscles and his sense of humor, he launches into a memorable and 4-minute verse, narrating a wacky nonlinear day-in-the-life episode that includes taking mushrooms and hallucinating about his ex, realizing he’s been robbed when a Patek receipt appears on his account, and telling a girl “fuck an omelette, you can eat off my face.” As it develops, the verse sounds more like a monologue from a screenplay than it does a rap verse, which means Donald Glover is in his element, and explains why he’s in peak form.
4. SMH – MAVI – All Verses
This song from the young lyricist Mavi also made the cut for our best songs of 2020 list. Whether it’s heady social commentary, braggadocious bars, or sage advice, all of MAVI’s lyrics sound like combinations of words you’ve never heard before – a compliment that also applies to his supporter and mentor Earl. As for MAVI’s lyrical advice on SMH, he raps: “taking wear and tear to the chest tat, try to keep the traps of trespassers lengths away from the headcap.” And then he provides sharp social commentary: “stuck in Anthropocene where moot is the standard, and movement ungranted, unless you snooping for a human zoo to loot and transplant in, attune your cruiser to the tune of mass panic.” We’ll let that verbal wizardly speak for itself.
5. Baptize – JID – Second Verse
Baptize is a standout track from the Atlanta-based supergroup Spillage Village, which consists of JID, EarthGang, 6lack, and others. Given the song‘s title, it appropriately serves as the opener to the group’s most recent album Spilligion. JID, the quick-spitting soft-spoken emcee doesn’t mince his words, bringing plenty of blasphemy to the baptism: “That’s that liquor talkin’, sippin’ Gin and readin’ the book of Genesis, Just before in the beginnin’ and shit, pride lies, deceit, Blah-blah, sinnin’ and shit, Adam and Eve dumb ass, apple-eatin’ thumb-ass.” Then he switches gears and asks some poignant questions: “How you get money and act as if poverty’s past tense? We see bad shit happens, but what happens to bad shit?” Bold lyrics aside, JID also has impressive control over his delivery and intonation, which he flexes during the second half of the verse. (JID’s verse on Anderson .Paak’s Lockdown Remix was another highlight from this year. Also, in early 2021, JID released Skegee, a powerful song about injustice and inequality).
- Look Over Your Shoulder – Kendrick Lamar – first verse
- JU$T – Zach De La Rocha – last verse
- Thought Vs. Everybody – Black Thought – all verses
- Lockdown – JID – first verse
- 1985 – Freddie Gibbs – only verse
- 33 – Noname – only verse
- Something to Rap About – Tyler, The Creator – second verse
- Shoes – Lupe Fiasco – all verses
- A.P.I.D.T.A. – Jay Electronica – first verse
- Lemon – Method Man – second verse
- Whole World – Earl – second verse
- The Neverending Story – Jay Electronica – first verse
- 327 – Westside Gunn – first verse
- Nightrider – Freddie Gibbs – last verse
- T.D. – Tierra Whack
*All lyrics courtesy of Genius