Rap music had its humble beginnings in the Bronx and grew to be a global cultural phenomenon. This genre was born out of creativity, resilience, and an unapologetic quest for self-expression. From then until now, it has produced icons that have shaped the landscape of the music scene.
From Eminem to Stormzy, this article pays tribute to influential figures who have not only transformed the genre but also left a profound impact on global culture and music history.
So prepare yourselves as we delve into the lives and works of 31 of the greatest and most famous rappers of all time. Ready? Let’s dive in!
Born Marshall Bruce Mathers III, Eminem took the dire circumstances of his youth, as well as other inspirations, and created vivid stories through his lyrics.
He hit it big with the album The Slim Shady LP in 1999. After this release, he continuously dropped chart-topping albums after another, with singles like “Lose Yourself” and “Not Afraid.” “Love the Way You Lie,” his collaboration with Barbadian singer Rihanna, took the #1 spot on Billboard Hot 100.
With more than 220 million units sold worldwide, Eminem is considered the highest-selling rapper in the industry.
The rapper is no stranger to recognition and acclaim as well. Eminem has garnered over 100 awards, including 15 Grammys. An induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022 marked a significant milestone in his illustrious career.
The story of Shawn Corey Carter, known professionally as Jay-Z, begins in the Marcy Projects of Brooklyn, New York, an area riddled with drugs and crime. Turning to rap as an escape from the harsh realities of his surroundings, Jay-Z soon made a name for himself in the world of music.
Of his 13 studio albums, 11 took the coveted #1 spot on Billboard 200, like Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life and The Black Album. With these and the singles he released over the years, he garnered 266 awards, 24 of which are Grammys.
Jay-Z’s impact isn’t confined to the music world alone. He’s a successful entrepreneur with several business ventures under his belt, including the entertainment company Roc Nation and the streaming service Tidal.
3. Kanye West
One of the best-selling music artists is Kanye West. Ye, as he is now called, showed a keen interest in the Chicago hip-hop scene at a young age. After college, he left to pursue his musical career full-time.
Ye’s breakthrough came when he produced Jay-Z’s critically acclaimed album The Blueprint in 2001. However, it wasn’t until the release of his debut album, The College Dropout, in 2004 that he became a household name.
The album garnered widespread acclaim and commercial success, as well as a Best Rap Album Grammy. The track “Jesus Walks” also received a Grammy for Best Rap Song.
Though very successful, Kanye is no stranger to controversy, whether it’s his candid public remarks, his political ambitions, or his outspoken personality. Regardless, he remains a highly influential figure in music.
Canadian rapper, singer-songwriter, and actor Drake was first in the film industry before gaining superstar status in music. In the early 2000s, he starred in the teen drama series Degrassi: The Next Generation. However, his passion for music led to the release of Room for Improvement, his debut mixtape, in 2006.
Signing with Young Money Entertainment in 2009 marked a pivotal moment in Drake’s career. His debut studio album, Thank Me Later, was released a year later and peaked at #1 on Billboard 200.
The rapper did not stop there, however. Since then, he has released six more studio albums, all #1 hits, with Take Care winning a Grammy for Best Rap Album. Today, fans eagerly await Drake’s eighth album, For All the Dogs, set to be released in August 2023.
5. Lil Wayne
Despite being called Lil Wayne, there is absolutely nothing “Li’l” about the achievements of this rapper. After a successful career start with the hip-hop group Hot Boys, Lil Wayne went solo with a bang. His debut album, Tha Block Is Hot, topped the US R&B chart and peaked at #3 on Billboard 200.
A prolific artist, Lil Wayne has released over 200 singles and EPs. More than a hundred of these charted on Billboard Hot 100, surpassing Elvis Presley.
Lil Wayne is also well-known for his numerous collaborations with other artists. One of his most notable collabs is with the aforementioned Drake, Kanye West, and Eminem on the track “Forever,” which resulted in a powerful hip-hop anthem.
6. Nicki Minaj
Trinidadian-born rapper Nicki Minaj is a tour de force in the world of hip-hop. Raised in a challenging environment, she used her difficult upbringing as a source of strength and inspiration.
By 2009, Minaj had already released three mix tapes, the last landing at #2 on Billboard 200. She was also making a name for herself in the New York underground hip-hop scene. It was around this time she caught the attention of Lil Wayne and got signed to his record label.
The success of her 2010 debut album, Pink Friday, and the popularity of one of its singles, “Super Bass,” propelled Minaj to a prolific career. It witnessed her sweeping 413 awards, selling over 100 million records, and bagging the title Queen of Rap.
7. Flo Rida
When he was still a teen, Tramar Lacel Dillard, known best as Flo Rida, was already joining local rap groups and recording with them. This early background in music played a significant role in shaping his career.
Then in 2007, he hit his breakout with the single “Low,” which featured T-Pain. The infectious track became an instant sensation, reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and many others. It also earned a Grammy nod for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration.
This isn’t his only hit, however, as many of his releases took to the top of the charts. “Right Round,” “Good Feeling,” “Wild Ones,” and “Whistle” are just a few examples of this man’s extraordinary work.
8. Cardi B
Born Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar Cephus, Cardi B first gained prominence through Instagram and Vine. She started her musical career in 2015, and in just eight years, she has achieved a lot.
A woman of firsts, she is the first solo female rapper to top the Billboard Hot 100 in nearly two decades. She is also the first female rapper with multiple #1 hits on the chart.
With her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, she became the only female solo artist to win the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album. Not yet impressed? She is also the first female rapper to nab multiple RIAA Diamond certifications!
Her talent is not just limited to music, though. Cardi B has also starred in TV shows and films, like the 2019 comedy-drama Hustlers and the ninth installment of the Fast and Furious franchise, F9.
Our next artist, Tupac Amaru Shakur – known to the world as Tupac Shakur or simply 2Pac – was more than just a rapper. Raised in a politically active family, 2Pac’s upbringing was steeped in the struggle for equality and civil rights. This environment infused him with a strong sense of social consciousness from an early age.
Through his music, 2Pac sought to give a voice to those who were often unheard, shining a spotlight on the injustices they faced. And with chart-topping albums such as Me Against the World and All Eyez on Me, he became one of the most prominent figures in hip-hop.
Tragically, in 1996, 2Pac’s life was cut short when he was fatally shot in Las Vegas. Nevertheless, his legacy is forever immortalized through the power of his music and the influence he left on the world.
10. Post Malone
With a DJ father, Post Malone was exposed to a wide variety of music genres at a young age, which would later shape his eclectic style. When he started his musical career, he became a maverick of modern music and gained quite the attention for fusing hip-hop, pop, R&B, and trap to his rap sound.
The result? Eight singles certified Diamond in the span of 12 years. With this under his repertoire, Post Malone holds the record for the most Diamond-certified songs. This includes “Rockstar,” “Circles,” and “Sunflower” from the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse soundtrack.
Looking to the future, Post Malone shows no signs of slowing down. He recently released his fifth studio album, Austin, in July 2023, and it is already reaching high on the charts.
11. Chris Brown
Charismatic and with a strong stage presence since he was a child, singer-songwriter, and rapper Chris Brown caught the attention of Jive Records in 2004, signing a record deal that would kickstart his career. He was only 15.
He debuted with a self-titled album a year later. With his impressive vocal range, the album effortlessly climbed the Billboard 200 charts to #2 and was soon certified triple Platinum. One of its singles, “Run It!” took the #1 spot on Billboard Hot 100.
Collaborations abound in Brown’s discography. He has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, adding many more Platinum hits under his belt.
12. MC Hammer
To be called the King of ’90s Hip-Hop and the forefather of pop rap are big shoes to fill, but MC Hammer filled them out effortlessly. He was one of the first to incorporate freestyle elements into his music.
With the iconic hit single “U Can’t Touch This” from the album Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em in 1990, MC Hammer was catapulted to stardom.
“U Can’t Touch This” became an anthem of the era, earning him critical acclaim and commercial success. The song skyrocketed to the top of the charts and won numerous awards. We’re talking about Grammy Awards for Best R&B Song and Best Rap Solo Performance.
However, despite his early success and immense popularity, MC Hammer faced financial challenges that eventually led to a significant downfall. Nevertheless, his innovative sound and style broke barriers and paved the way for future artists.
13. Travis Scott
The American rapper, singer, songwriter, and record producer Travis Scott has made waves since 2008. Born Jacques Bermon Webster II, he is one of the widely recognized pop culture artists worldwide.
He’s known for the chart-topping singles “Highest in the Room,” “The Scotts,” “Franchise,” and “Sicko Mode.” This last song earned him a number of awards, including the Top Streaming Song (Audio) Billboard Music Award.
To date, Scott has released four studio albums. The latest album, Utopia, was dropped in July 2023 and was a smash hit. It topped the charts of countries all over the world, including the US, UK, Canada, and Australia.
14. J. Cole
From the time he was 12, J. Cole has been rapping and improving his craft. Ten years later, in 2007, he debuted as an artist with Cole World: The Sideline Story. This album was an instant hit, topping Billboard 200.
He went on to release several critically acclaimed—read: #1 hit—albums over the years, including the award-winning 2014 Forest Hills Drive. These albums delve into topics such as love, fame, racial inequality, and mental health, resonating with listeners on a deep level.
Beyond his musical talents, J. Cole is also known for his activism and community involvement. In 2011, he founded the Dreamville Foundation. This non-profit organization focuses on empowering and supporting youth in underserved communities.
15. Snoop Dogg
Our next rapper, Snoop Dogg, was first exposed to the limelight in Dr. Dre’s song “Deep Cover” and then on the rapper’s album The Chronic. This helped push him to fame by the time he debuted with Doggystyle in 1993.
This groundbreaking release propelled him to stardom and introduced the world to his West Coast gangsta rap vibes. He followed this up with several more chart-topping albums and singles in the years following, like Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told, and “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”
Music aside, Snoop Dogg has also made his mark in the entertainment industry through acting. He has appeared in movies such as Training Day, Starsky & Hutch, and Scary Movie 5.
16. 50 Cent
The rise to fame of rapper 50 Cent, born Curtis James Jackson III, was riddled with difficulties. After releasing his controversial but hilarious debut single “How to Rob,” he was shot nine times at close range.
Luckily for the artist, he survived and bounced back a few years later with the chart-topping album Get Rich or Die Tryin’. It won several awards in the process, including Album of the Year from Billboard Music Awards.
Fan-favorite songs such as “In da Club,” “P.I.M.P.,” and “Candy Shop” have also gained the New York rapper awards.
From surviving a near-fatal shooting to overcoming adversities, 50 Cent has become a symbol of perseverance and triumph.
17. Missy Elliott
Also known as Misdemeanor, Missy Elliott has been directing the global soundscape for over three decades. From her debut album, Supa Dupa Fly, in 1997, which achieved Platinum status within two months, to her subsequent releases, she has consistently pushed musical boundaries.
Her singles, like “Work It,” “Lose Control,” and “Get Ur Freak On,” have gained Platinum and multi-Platinum statuses. These songs have also earned Missy Elliott Grammy Awards.
With over 40 million records sold worldwide, Missy Elliott is one of the best-selling female rappers out there. A Hollywood Walk of Fame and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are a testament to her outstanding contributions to the music industry.
18. Ja Rule
Born and raised in New York City, Ja Rule‘s journey from the streets to mainstream success is a testament to his talent and perseverance.
Born Jeffrey Bruce Atkins Sr., he began rapping in 1994 with the group Cash Money Click before later going solo. He debuted in 1999 with Venni Vetti Vecci, which has reached Platinum status.
However, it was Ja Rule’s subsequent releases that propelled him to commercial success and cemented his status as a hip-hop heavyweight. Albums like Rule 3:36 and Pain Is Love spawned hit songs such as “Put It On Me,” “Always on Time,” and “Livin’ It Up.”
While Ja Rule has faced challenges throughout his career, including a highly publicized feud with fellow rapper 50 Cent, he still continues to be influential in the genre.
19. Wiz Khalifa
For our next rapper, Wiz Khalifa, it all started with mixtapes in the mid-2000s. Prince of the City: Welcome to Pistolvania led to his debut album, Show and Prove, in 2006. Though not a commercial success, it put the rapper in the limelight.
After signing with Atlantic Records in 2010, Khalifa continuously released chart-topping albums and received several Grammy nominations throughout the decade.
One of his earlier hits is “Black and Yellow.” This 6x Platinum hit received a Best Rap Performance Grammy. Another great release is the Diamond-certified “See You Again,” featuring Charlie Puth, for the film Furious 7. The song received eight awards in the span of two years.
20. Dr. Dre
As a pioneer of West Coast rap, the legendary rapper, producer, and entrepreneur Dr. Dre played a pivotal role in shaping the sound and style of the genre. He rose to prominence as a member of the rap group N.W.A. in the late 1980s.
Dr. Dre’s 1992 debut solo album, The Chronic, is widely regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. He followed this up with two more studio albums, both topping charts: 2001 and Compton.
The rapper’s collaborations are also well-known. Together with Dr. Dre, artists such as Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and 50 Cent have produced iconic hits that have stood the test of time.
East Coast hip-hop master Nas is a name well-known in the rapping world. Born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, this Brooklyn-born rapper has carved out a legendary career. It started with the album Illmatic in 1994.
Following the release of Illmatic, Nas continued to deliver critically acclaimed studio albums—16 to be exact. These showed off his versatility and growth as an artist, many of which topped the Billboard 200.
In recognition of his extraordinary talent, Nas received numerous accolades throughout the years. He was also nominated for and won multiple Grammy Awards, including Best Rap Album for King’s Disease in 2021.
When Christopher Brian Bridges—Ludacris to fans—started rapping at the age of nine, little did he know that he would be famous. He went on to sell over 24 million units, becoming one of the best-selling rappers in the world.
After a brief stint as a DJ, he debuted with Incognegro in 1999. But his breakthrough came with Back for the First Time a year later, which now holds triple-Platinum status.
Over the years, songs like “Stand Up” and “Money Maker” became fan favorites. Both topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while “Money Maker” won a Grammy for Best Rap Song.
Beyond his music, Ludacris has successfully ventured into the world of acting, appearing in both film and television. His notable roles include the Fast & Furious film franchise, where he portrays the charismatic Tej Parker.
23. André 3000
A name that resonates with creativity and musical brilliance is André 3000. He is renowned for his work as one-half of the iconic duo Outkast.
Their album The Love Below was an ambitious and genre-defying project that fused elements of hip-hop, R&B, funk, and jazz. The track “Hey Ya!” won a Grammy for Best Urban/Alternative Performance.
In 2007, André 3000 embarked on a solo career, where he often worked with artists like Frank Ocean, Kanye West, and Erykah Badu. He also lent his talents to film soundtracks, like The Great Gatsby in 2013.
Though André 3000 has been relatively quiet in terms of releasing solo music in recent years, his impact on the industry remains undeniable.
24. Lauryn Hill
Acclaimed rapper Lauryn Hill gained her start as the frontwoman of The Fugees. She was propelled to new heights when she went on a solo career in 1997.
A year later, her solo debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was released, soaring to the top of the Billboard 200. Now Diamond certified, the album is one of the best-selling albums by a female rapper.
In 1999, Hill made history by becoming the first woman to win five Grammy Awards in a single night, including Album of the Year for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. These honors cemented her status as a musical powerhouse and highlighted her exceptional artistry.
25. Kendrick Lamar
Like Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar gained recognition with a mixtape in 2003 and for performing alongside West Coast rappers of the time. He wouldn’t debut until 2011 with Section.80.
Breakthrough, however, came in the form of his second album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, in 2012. This release topped the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and received Grammy nods for Album of The Year and Best Rap Album.
Another great album from Lamar is the 2017 Damn, which won a Best Rap Album Grammy. Its track “Humble” won Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Song, and Best Music Video Grammys.
Having sold over 70 million records in the US alone, Lamar is among the greatest rappers of all time and one of the most influential too!
26. The Notorious B.I.G.
Born Christopher George Latore Wallace, the Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls, was an iconic rapper and one of the most influential figures in hip-hop history.
He gained prominence with his debut album, Ready to Die, in 1994. It featured the tracks “Juicy” and “Big Poppa,” which became instant classics. His second album, Life After Death, topped Billboard 200 and won the Billboard Music Award for R&B Album.
Tragically, his life was cut short when he was fatally shot on March 9, 1997, in Los Angeles. Despite his brief career, he left an enduring impact on the genre. He influenced generations of rappers with his unique style and storytelling abilities.
27. Ice Cube
Rising to prominence as a member of the influential rap group N.W.A., we have the rapper Ice Cube. In the late 1980s, N.W.A. became pioneers of West Coast hip-hop, tackling social and political issues through their music.
Then in 1989, Ice Cube left N.W.A. to start a solo career, releasing his debut album, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, in 1990. He followed this up with his breakthrough album Death Certificate a year later, which took the second spot on the Billboard 200.
Also an actor, Ice Cube has starred in numerous successful films, including Boyz n the Hood, Anaconda, Are We There Yet?, and Three Kings. For this last film, the rapper received a Blockbuster Entertainment Award: Favorite Action Team.
28. LL Cool J
Born James Todd Smith, American rapper, songwriter, record producer, and actor LL Cool J began his career in the mid-1980s and quickly rose to fame with his debut album, Radio, in 1985.
His breakthrough came with his second studio album, Bigger and Deffer, which featured the iconic track “I Need Love.” This song shattered expectations by introducing a softer, more romantic side to hip-hop. It earned LL Cool J a reputation as one of the pioneers of rap ballads.
Not content with conquering the music world alone, LL Cool J ventured into acting and achieved remarkable success. He is best known for his role as Special Agent Sam Hanna in the TV series NCIS: Los Angeles.
29. Lil’ Kim
A trailblazing female rapper, Lil’ Kim has been showcasing her talent since 1994, first as part of the hip-hop group Junior M.A.F.I.A., then as an iconic solo artist.
Lil’ Kim’s debut solo album, Hard Core, became a critical and commercial success. It was released in 1996 and gained double-Platinum status. Her succeeding albums were an even greater success, all landing in the top 10 of Billboard 200.
Then in 2001, together with Christina Aguilera, Mya, and P!nk, Lil’ Kim released “Lady Marmalade” for the film Moulin Rouge! It gained several awards, including a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.
30. Busta Rhymes
Starting as one of the members of the hip-hop group Leaders of the New School, Trevor George Smith Jr.—best known as Busta Rhymes—went on to be a great influence on many names on this list, including Eminem and Kendrick Lamar.
In a career that has spanned over thirty years, Busta Rhymes has released 10 studio albums and 92 singles. “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check,” “Dangerous,” and “Touch It” are favorites among fans. These songs gained the rapper Grammy nods for Best Rap Solo Performance.
To date, Busta Rhymes is still quite active. His latest album, Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God, was released in 2020, landing at #7 on Billboard 200.
We move across the pond for our last, but certainly not the least, rapper on the list: Stormzy (real name Michael Ebenezer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr.). This British rapper and singer-songwriter has achieved considerable success in his career, which started in 2010.
Stormzy’s rise to fame began with the release of his debut studio album, Gang Signs & Prayer, in 2017. The album received critical acclaim and debuted at #1 on the UK Albums Chart.
A year later, he won British Male Solo Artist and British Album of the Year for the album at the BRIT Awards, solidifying his status as a leading figure in British music. Then in 2020, Stormzy received another Brit Award for the single “Vossi Bop” from the album Heavy Is the Head.
Summing Up Our List Of Great Rappers
As you have read, there are many talented artists who have greatly influenced the hip-hop genre, from pioneers like 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G. to modern icons like Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed this list as much as we have. Maybe you’ve discovered some new favorite rappers along the way or had a chance to revisit the classics that shaped the genre.
Which rappers do you think we missed? Your input is invaluable to us, and we would love to add your suggestions here!