The year of Hip Hop’s 50th anniversary blessed fans with a lot of great music, but when it came to pen game, the list of nominees for Best Rap Verse at this year’s HipHopDX Awards raised the bar (pun intended).
The group includes a lot of familiar faces. For starters, there’s Cardi B, who continued to exemplify the fine art of staying on top without even having an album out. There’s also lyrical titans Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, who delivered arguably two of the year’s best guest spots. Rounding things out is the elusive ‘MCs MC’ André 3000, who teased fans with a stellar guest spot on Killer Mike‘s Michael LP, and then, five months later, dropped bar-free flute album New Blue Sun.
As the ongoing rift between art and over-commercialized, manufactured hype rages on, this year’s shortlist continue to push others to either up their bars or hire better ghostwriters.
Review all of our Hip Hop Award categories and nominees and check out our nominations for Best Rap Verse of 2023 below.
Editors Note: Selections for Best Rap Verse of 2023 were restricted to between December 1, 2022 and December 1, 2023. Nominees are listed in alphabetical order.
BEST RAP VERSE OF 2023 NOMINATIONS
- André 3000 — “Scientists & Engineers”
- Cardi B — “Put It on da Floor Again”
- J. Cole — “First Person Shooter”
- J. Cole — “The Secret Recipe”
- Kendrick Lamar — “The Hillbillies”
The Best Rap Verse of 2023 is…
André 3000 – “Scientists & Engineers”
Widely regarded as one of Hip Hop’s most celebrated lyricists, André 3000 boasts an impressive discography as one half of OutKast. Despite this, he has never released a full-blown solo album — a detail frequently pointed out by his critics. This backdrop made his well-received, albeit bar-free, flute-focused album, New Blue Sun, even more captivating and, for some, frustrating. Compounding this frustration is the fact that, despite claiming “it’s just not happening for [him],” the ATLien delivered this absolutely stunning verse for friend and longtime OutKast affiliate Killer Mike’s “Scientists and Engineers” just five months earlier.
In this guest appearance, 3 Stacks tackles the overwhelming demand for his music, the burden of legacy and his ongoing search for personal satisfaction: “Communication comin’ in/ Too much that I can’t communicate with all of them/ I do wish I had scientist or engineer friends/ Let’s go, get out of here, petrol is cheaper than it’s ever been/ And then, who’s to say when all would end?”
He also echoes a sentiment he shared with NPR that he’d love to be “out there playing with everybody,” suggesting that even if he has to wait a lot (lot) longer, it’s not off the table. “Hope I’m 80 when I get my second wind/ Small potatoes all I ate before potato chips would cut my corner lips/ Operator, operator, I would pray that you connect me to a sip/ Of sangria, Zambia, camera cameo, hand me a handful of hips.”
Given the quality of this verse, it’s challenging to attribute his hesitation to release a solo (Hip Hop) album to anything else but stage fright.
Cardi B – “Put It On Da Floor Again”
Cardi B isn’t exactly elusive, but over five years since her last studio album, her output doesn’t quite match that of some of her contemporaries. However, this does little to dampen her energy when she does hop on the mic, as evidenced by her feature on Latto‘s “Put It on da Floor Again.” Stealing the show and propelling a non-charting original song to a peak of No. 13 on Billboard’s Hot 100, Cardi fires off a barrage of stray shots, mostly open for interpretation (unless you’re a devout Barb).
Across the blistering 16, she shades her detractors and provides Twitter with enough meme-able quotes to last two seasons. “Put a ribbon on me, I been actin’ brand new/ I ain’t smokin’ on no za, lil’ bitch, I’m smokin’ on you/ Put your bestie in a pack and now I’m smokin’ her too/ I been ballin’ so damn hard, could’ve went to LSU.”
Elsewhere, Cardi showcases her ability to energize her audience, referencing the somewhat erratic timeline of pop icon Britney Spears, with a line that became a staple in captions across numerous social platforms: “N-gga, cry for what? Bitch, these are Denim Tears/ I’m sexy dancin’ in the house, I feel like Britney Spears/ So put it on the floor, just like their career/ What they got on me? Bodies and a couple years.”
In essence, her verse stands as a striking testament to the principle of quality over quantity.
J. Cole – “First Person Shooter”
Drake and J. Cole had ascents that ran practically in parallel, dropping debuts within a year of each other and being ushered in by rappers largely considered to be G.O.A.T.s (Lil Wayne and JAY-Z respectively), depending on who you ask. Considering their longstanding relationship and upcoming tour, the duo’s latest collaboration, “First Person Shooter” — which dominated the Billboard Hot 100 — is especially potent.
Cole, though, is extra sharp as he addresses an over-hyped “beef” with NBA YoungBoy (exasperated by his verse on Lil Yachty’s “The Secret Recipe”) and, more broadly, his status atop the Hip Hop food chain: “N-ggas so thirsty to put me in beef/ Dissecting my words and start looking too deep/ I look at the tweets and start sucking my teeth/ I’m letting it rock ’cause I love the mystique/ I still wanna get me a song with YB/ Can’t trust everything that you saw on IG/ Just know if I diss you, I’d make sure you know that I hit you like I’m on your caller ID.”
He also humorously addresses how people pit him, Drizzy and Kendrick Lamar against each other (“We the big three like we started a league, but right now, I feel like Muhammad Ali“), making it clear that he is not to be played with lyrically while lamenting on how the game is now largely about everything but the bars.
“Rhymin’ with me is the biggest mistake/ The Spider-Man meme is me lookin’ at Drake/ It’s like we recruited your homies to be demon deacons, we got ’em attending your wake,” he raps. “Hate how the game got away from the bars, man, this shit like a prison escape.”
J. Cole – “The Secret Recipe”
J. Cole is unabashed when it comes to calling a spade a spade, even if it ruffles feathers. Great examples of this are “False Prophets” and “Middle Child.” His latest collection of stray shots came courtesy of a feature on Lil Yachty’s “The Secret Recipe”; living up to the track’s title, Cole snaps, addressing, among other things, established artists chasing trends to fit in. “The way you sound, the way you try to move, you try to stay abreast on all the latest flows and latest tones from Generation X,” he spits. “Y’all chasing relevance, it’s evidenced by the way you step/ As for me, I cook so masterfully, ain’t gotta pay a chef/ I’m older now, but still, I’m cutting edge, I’m like a bayonet.”
Elsewhere, he bombs on fake activists and studio gangsters. “N-ggas fake-progressive and woke, I started saying less/ I had to stop it, peeped how they profit off of racial stress/ Some activists got so rich, they probably wish we stay oppressed/ Studio steppers moving extra on songs, faking rep/ Only breaking bad in the lab, thought y’all was making meth.”
In true Cole fashion, he leaves it up to the fans to connect the dots, though one specific reference led fans to widely conclude he was talking about NBA YoungBoy (“Don’t ask how I feel ’bout no rappers, shit, they okay, I guess/ Incoming call, press the button, the one that says accept/ He FaceTime to ask for a feature and saw the face of death“), though Cole dispelled this theory with his fiery verse on Drake’s “First Person Shooter” — as did his manager.
Kendrick Lamar & Baby Keem – “The Hillbillies”
It’s not every day that we get new material from Kendrick Lamar, let alone have it drop out of absolutely nowhere. Over a flip of Bon Iver‘s “PDLIF,” K.Dot and cousin Baby Keem connect like Voltron with symbiotic-level cohesion for “The Hillbillies”— loaded with oodles of rap-isms: women, high-end fashion and multi-millionaire vibes.
Referring to themselves as elite-level footballers Neymar and Lionel Messi, the duo sound like they just left a month-long spa retreat. Particularly Kendrick who is in no way performative; instead he’s loose and almost hilariously disrespectful as he humbly asserts the fact that he exists on a different plane: “Baby, I’m high-profile, don’t ever tell ’em you met me, girl/ They gon’ think that you rep me, girl, 5’7″/ I’m Messi, girl/ I’ma pass you to Neymar, he got time for your bestie, girl/ N-ggas know that I’m best-dressed, too high-profile to access.”
Elsewhere, he further exerts his baller status, while subtly asserting his place in the game, spitting: “Yeah, n-ggas know that I’m best-dressed/ Wear Martine when I board jets/ They sardines and I’m big fish, eat caviar when I’m depressed/ Take selfies, I’m in Czech Republic, Cornell, he gon’ check the budget/ Borrowed two million from my cousin, never gave it back, ’cause it’s nothin’.”
Sonic comparisons to Drake’s “Sticky” were seemingly intentional, with Keem himself referring to the song as a “Sticky Dub.” On some level, it’s deliciously savage for an MC like Kendrick, who holds a disjointed amount of respect in real-rap circles, to so effortlessly tone down and body the 6 God’s rhyme scheme.
Check out our previousaward winners.
Artwork and graphic design by JR Martinez.
Paragraphs written by Riley Wallace.