This year felt normal while also being quite strange at the same damn time. On one hand, the restrictions, fears and anxieties of COVID seemed to have subsided amongst the masses, bringing back a sense of normalcy to the Hip Hop ecosystem. That said, the last 12 months were anything but normal for our beloved genre.
If you let the streets and tweets (or X posts, if you’re nasty) tell it, 2023 has been the worst year for rap music in a decade — a statement that feels a tad bit dramatic but might actually be based in facts. Rap albums and singles across all streamers and charts have been steadily on the decline over the last five years but the slide seemed more apparent this year.
This begs the question: is Hip Hop as a genre losing its musical grip on popular culture? The answer is likely “yes” but with some silver lining. Nothing lasts forever and music is no exception. Pop culture is a cycle and right now other genres might be having their own renaissance within the cultural zeitgeist. But Hip Hop is strong. Hip Hop is durable. And Hip Hop will be here no matter what — even if the Country Gold playlist gets more monthly listeners than Rap Caviar.
That said, the tracks below selected as nominees for HipHopDX‘s Best Hip Hop Songs of 2023 prove that rap is still in a good place despite the reported decline.
Review all of our Hip Hop Award categories and nominees.
Editors Note: Best Hip Hop Songs of 2023 selections were restricted to between December 1, 2022 to December 1, 2023. Nominees and honorable mentions are listed in alphabetical order.
BEST HIP HOP SONGS OF 2023 NOMINATIONS
- Doja Cat – “Paint the Town Red”
- Gunna – “fukumean”
- Kendrick Lamar & Baby Keem – “The Hillbillies”
- Killer Mike (Feat. André 3000 & Future) – “Scientists & Engineers”
- Sexyy Red – “SkeeYee”
The Best Hip Hop Song of 2023 is…
Sexyy Red – “SkeeYee”
In 2023 Sexyy Red unleashed her biggest song to date, “SkeeYee.” Produced by Tay Keith, the up-tempo, heavy-hitting track is proof that less is more when it comes to crafting hit records. A simple chorus with an anthemic “skeeeyeee” chant scattered throughout is all it needed to become a contender for song of the year.
Sexyy Red might not be a lyrical miracle spiritual spitter but what she lacks in metaphors and wordplay she makes up for in spades with attitude, delivery and ass-shaking songwriting. Just play this song at any party and the reaction will let you know why this is the biggest Hip Hop song of the year.
Doja Cat – “Paint The Town Red”
Just when people think Doja Cat is fizzling out or that her antics are outweighing her musical prowess, she pops up with a smash hit and proves everybody wrong. “Paint the Town Red” dropped in early August which put it in contention for song of the summer while still having legs to run it into the holiday season.
Producers Earl On The Beat, Karl Rubin, Jean-Baptiste Kouame and DJ Replay deserve some serious credit for flipping the infectious Dionne Warwick sample of “Walk On By” (even if it took the legendary soul singer by surprise), which is laced with bouncy horns, a thick bassline and crisp snaps that make it an undeniable earworm for fans and haters alike.
Speaking of haters, this song also doubles as the perfect diss track to the quarter million of her former fans who unfollowed her on Instagram due to her alleged unappreciativeness. For Doja’s outlook on that situation and life in general, look no further than the chorus that proudly chants: “Yeah bitch, I said what I said/ I’d rather be famous instead.”
Gunna – “fukumean”
What was surely the song of the summer could also very well be deemed song of the year. Gunna‘s “fukumean” was heard non-stop from the streets to the club to dentist office waiting rooms and everywhere in between.
Of course, Gunna gets busy on the Flo and Dunk Rock beat rapping with a catchy yet potent cadence, but the jet fuel that propelled the track to No. 1 was thanks to South African artist Sho Madjozi. Her 2018 song “Huku” contained the trademark “eeeeyeeah” vocal sample used throughout the track.
It was by far the strongest and most popular song on Gunna’s A Gift & a Curse album — which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart. Not bad for a gangsta rapper accused of snitching on Young Thug to free himself from prison just a year ago.
Kendrick Lamar & Baby Keem – “The Hillbillies”
Kendrick Lamar carried the weight of the world on his shoulders when he released Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers in 2022, but after a tour with his cousin and fellow rapper Baby Keem, it seems like he’s in a better place.
“The Hillbillies” sees the two relieve the stress of being on the road with a mixture of braggadocios fit checks and comparisons to Lionel Messi and Neymar. While Kendrick and Keem flaunt their familial chemistry, rising underground producer EVILGIANE dials up a chaotic beat to match the duo’s zany intensity.
The track is light on the introspection Kendrick has become known for, but this makes way for an underrated part of his character — he’s funny as hell. Above all else, it’s refreshing to see them both letting loose. Words: Louis Pavlakos
Killer Mike (Feat Andre 3000 & Future) – “Scientists & Engineers”
For “Scientists & Engineers,” one of the standout tracks on Killer Mike’s album of the year contender, MICHAEL, the Atlanta holy trinity join forces to form what can best be described as a dirty south Voltron. Bringing together the best elements of all three artists, Future lays down his toxic king armor and gets vulnerable, André 3000 puts down the flute and gets some bars off, while Mr. Render plays the role of lyrical quarterback.
All three ATLiens get off some of the year’s best bars with both soulful samples and digital beat switches providing the perfect backdrop. Plus, Eryn Allen Kane delivers some gorgeous harmonies on the chorus and throughout which in turn helps sprinkle in some melodies atop the bar heavy verses.
MICHAEL is Killer Mike’s first album since 2012 and the big man overdelivered in an equally as big way, bringing together all the elements fans and casuals were hoping for — especially the surprise André 3000 verse.
Drake (Feat. J. Cole) — “First Person Shooter”
As if a new Drake album in 2023 wasn’t exciting enough, the 6 God tapped up J. Cole for a full-fledged turbo banger. Arguably the most colossal-sounding song of the year, both rappers trade top-tier bars for over four minutes, weaving in and out of the perfectly crafted Boi-1da, Vinylz, Tay Keith, Oz and FnZ beat.
Add the pulsating chorus and cliffhanging beat switch, as well as its accompanying Michael Bay-esque big budget music video, and you’ve got an undeniable powerhouse anthem. The No. 1 hit also put Drake on the cusp of history, being that he’s now tied with Michael Jackson for the most chart-topping singles by a male solo artist. Big as the what???
Ice Spice & Nicki Minaj — “Princess Diana” (Remix)
Make a meme out of Ice Spice and she’ll turn it into a hit song; with “Princess Diana” the Bronx rapper let people know they were heard. At first facetious, the comparisons between Ice and the late Princess of Wales started out as trending topic online, but with her colloquial lyrics and down-to-earth attitude, Ice Spice proved she’s a true princess of the people.
“Princess Diana” hears producer RIOTUSA splice bass-heavy production with the frantic plucks of a repetitive guitar riff, and adding Nicki Minaj into the mix only pushes the track’s appeal further. Acting as a pseudo passing of the torch moment between the seismic personalities, the duo capitalize on public opinion and successfully insert Ice Spice into one of the most famous pop culture narratives of our time. Words: Rebecca Barglowski
Latto (Feat. Cardi B) — “Put It On Da Floor Again”
There are few songs released in 2023 that go as hard as Latto‘s “Put It on da Floor,” a menacing single produced by Go Grizzly, Squat and Pooh Beatz that is liable to rattle trunks and AirPods alike. The original version featuring just Latto on her own was immediately thrown into everyone’s “turn up” or “gym” playlist, but after Cardi B hopped on the remix it became an anthem.
“Put It on da Floor Again” is equal parts attitude, bars and delivery from two artists who rap like their lives depend on it. It’s yet another step on Latto’s ladder ascending towards being modern day Hip Hop royalty but more impressively, it’s confirmation Cardi B can still rap gun bars with the best of ’em.
Lil Durk (Feat. J. Cole) — “All My Life”
When J. Cole opens Lil Durk‘s “All My Life” by humbly rapping: “Durkio told me he been on some positive shit/ Lately I just want to show up and body some shit,” listeners should have known they were in for a treat.
In Hip Hop, it can be difficult to make such an outwardly positive and uplifting song not sound corny or forced – especially from one of the genre’s best drill rappers. However, in this case, both the song — which is the lead single from Durkio’s Almost Healed album — and Durk’s “positive shit” era, feel organic, thoughtful and perhaps just in time.
Tyler, The Creator — “DOGTOOTH”
No one has had a better few years than Tyler, The Creator. The once controversial Hip Hop prankster has become one of the most celebrated artists of the last five years thanks largely to what matters most: the music. From Flower Boy to Igor and now to the deluxe version of CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST: The Estate Sale, the Odd Future co-founder has certainly checked off a laundry list of musical boxes.
“DOGTOOTH” is a seamless marriage between melodic Tyler and rapping for sport Tyler. The chorus of “She could ride my face, I don’t want nothing in return” is silly, catchy and will likely be sung back to him at festivals for years to come. Of course, in true Tyler fashion, he’s also the song’s producer which means tons of dreamy synthesizers, dancing keys and plenty of ad-libs.
Check out our previous Hip Hop Songaward winners.
Artwork and graphic design by JR Martinez.
Paragraphs written by Scotty Glaysher except where noted.