2015 was a very good year for rap music, from the underground to the mainstream, and it was full of a lot of feature verses that were memorable and full of flavor. Ten specific guest spots stood out as especially strong, though…
10. Kanye West on Tyler, The Creator’s “SMUCKERS”
Kanye West didn’t release too much solo material in 2015, as he’s been working on his follow up to 2013’s Yeezus, entitled Swish, all year…or at least we hope so (Lord forbid it goes the way of Detox). But, in between dropping a dope, fun banger, and a not-so-dope tirade against Nike, West found the time to spit a captivating feature verse on Tyler, the Creator’s Cherry Bomb, managing to outshine both the Odd Future founder and fellow feature Lil’ Wayne. The Louis Vuitton Don’s verse is the centerpiece of the song, with West barking out lyrics in all his bombastic glory.
Yeezer’s delivery is as confident as ever here, beating his chest and bragging, “I gave you all I got, you still want extra from me/ Oxford want a full-blown lecture from me“. The verse is littered with quotables and endearing swagger, and will go down as one of West’s best feature verses in a career chock-full of excellent ones.
9. Rapsody on Talib Kweli & 9th Wonder’s “Every Ghetto”
Rapsody may have gained more notoriety this year via her feature on Kendrick Lamar’s “Complexion (A Zulu Love)“, but her best work this year came on this track with true-school luminaries Talib Kweli and 9th Wonder off their collaborative Indie 500 album.
She comes in strong with her captivating stop-and-start flow, sticking to the “ghetto” imagery Kweli began painting before her. Her pen game is on a bean and a half for every bar, with clever wordplay weaved throughout the entire verse. Just a couple examples: “this one’s for Basquiat/ they be brushin’ with death, is this the Art of War for cops?“, “it’s an odd future, they ain’t know we was all some creators“. Even with her visceral commentary on police brutality in urban communities, Rapsody keeps a hopeful undertone throughout, showing that there is still hope in “Every Ghetto” after all.
8. Lil’ Wayne on A$AP Rocky’s “M$”
There was a time when Weezy F. Baby was pretty much immune to being wack. In recent years though, his appearances just don’t excite like they used to. However, in 2015, it’s as if the right people finally lit a proverbial fire under the dreaded emcee’s ass, since he’s been rapping the best he has since ’08 on his solo work (his mixtape Sorry 4 The Wait 2 is very solid) and features on Drake’s “Used To“, Big Sean’s “Deep” and Jadakiss’ “Kill” were all delivered well. But it is his show-stealing performance on A$AP Rocky‘s banger “M$” that solidified hope that Carter V may not be garbage after all, as Weezy goes back to his murderous ways here.
Stand out lines like “feet up in my European, I ride with my heater inside/ Kill you and your dog then go put on a shirt that say PETA for life” show that Wayne hasn’t lost his razor-sharp wit, and a flurry of internal rhymes lasting over 12 bars show that he hasn’t lost his technical ability either. With his return to form this year, it’s clear that Lil’ Wayne has no plans of going to any rapper retirement homes anytime soon, and I think we’ll all be better off for it.
7. Beanie Sigel on Pusha-T’s “Keep Dealing”
Beanie Sigel is a name we haven’t really been hearing lately, outside of headlines about his legal troubles; but the resourceful emcee resurfaced on one of the best rap albums of the year. The Broad Street Bully sounds right at home on the Nashiem Myrick production with vivid depictions of “project benches, hella ‘caine, dope in cellophane, dirty syringes” and “clientele [that] look like the “Thriller” vid in 3D lenses“.
You can hear the genuine hunger and grit in his eerily calm, menacing voice; it’s clear that Beanie missed being in the booth after being in a cell for so long, as this verse may possibly contain the very best writing of his entire career. The State Property general spits “you watched me go through hell, now watch me walk up out it,” and as long as he keeps rapping like this, we’ll be listening.
6. Nas on Fashawn’s “Something To Believe In”
Nas did a bunch of dope features this year, but it was his least-heard one that was his best. He begins the verse on Fresno, CA native Fashawn‘s “Something To Believe In” with one of the best openers of the year, confidently proclaiming that he’ll be a “money getter till [he’s] a one percenter“. Esco then rattles off historical and political references related without sounding preachy or ham-fisted.
In what may be the finest 4-bar sequence in a flawless verse, he summarizes the after-effects of serving jail time in the US by warning “so unforgivin’ is the universe when you don’t listen/ it’s all written, that soul quenchin’ gold you’re missin’/ careful an ending in the destructive penal system/ where your wild bark and your growls turn to meows and hissin’“. This succinct, accurate depiction of the masculinity-stripping nature of the beast known as the American prison system is nothing short of perfect. The legendary Queens emcee gives quite me quite a bit of hope that his next full-length project will be a damn good one.
5. Drake on The Game’s “100”
“Since when did the game turn into the Drake show?” is a question Aubrey Graham posed on “Draft Day” in 2014. It seems that every song the Canadian rapper jumps on becomes his, and all “game” puns aside, the lead single off The Game’s Documentary 2 is no exception. Drake comes off smug but honest, dismissive but methodical, cocky but realistic.
“I would have so many friends if I didn’t have money, respect and accomplishments/ I would have so many friends if I held back the truth and I just gave out compliments” the rapper muses before his charming arrogance shines through with the observation, “I’m in the club every time they play the competition, if they even play the competition, and I see the response they get/ yeah, nobody’s even hearin’ it“. It’s this conversational delivery that lends a unique quality to Drake’s performance, making it sound as if he is not rapping, but talking to his detractors without ever letting them see him sweat.
The 6ix God wraps his bars up with one of the best couplets of 2015, “might go to Jamaica, disappear again/ my circle got so small that it’s a period“. If that’s not Tweet-worthy, I don’t know what is. Sure, it doesn’t have as many spiritual lyrical miracles as other guest verses this year, but it’s certainly one of the most authentic sounding, and isn’t that what keeping it “100” is all about?
4. Eminem on Yelawolf’s “Best Friend”
For the first time in years, Em sounds revitalized and honest on Yelawolf‘s “Best Friend”. He plays with his flow melodically in the beginning and cleverly incorporates Yelawolf’s refrain into his lyrics. Marshall’s witty wordplay of old is back here (“could have turned Dahli with the llama“, “shout it out like there’s never been a louder mouth/ shoulda never been allowed a mouth“) and his masterful use of polysyllabic rhyme schemes is intact as well. Eminem raps for almost two non-stop minutes on “Best Friend”, but you don’t even notice that because you’re too busy picking your jaw up off the floor.
The verse is a thinly-veiled tribute to the Detroit native’s real-life best friend Proof, who was murdered in 2006, and while Em’s pain and ever-present anger are there in his voice, the hint of assured confidence and genuine desire to rap about things other than just rapping has returned. This fantastic feature verse made me eat my words when it came to my thoughts on if the rapper needs to completely retire; and silencing critics has always been one of his best talents.
3. Black Thought on Prhyme’s “Wishin’ II”
On this remix of Prhyme’s “Wishin'” from the deluxe rerelease of their 2014 eponymous album, Black Thought gives an utterly flawless clinic on how to fucking rap, most fittingly over production by one of the best to ever do it, DJ Premier. The Philly native starts off strong over a slow, gritty, guitar-driven beat, dropping references to Chilean politician Salvador Allende, Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and Rakim all within the first four bars. Tariq has always had a knack for writing multi-syllable rhymes that always sound natural and effortless (“forensic files, leaving ‘em disemboweled, ’87 style/ they chance slimmer than Reverend Al or Kevin Liles“), but it is when Premier completely switches up the beat to a faster backdrop that Thought really takes off, taking a short break before going back in with the gripping confessional “post traumatic stress, I wear it as a family crest“.
His subtle humor pokes its head in to the verse too with the line “I’m pulling in two hundred thousand for appearances/ I wrote a song about it, here it is“, which references a classic In Living Color sketch. By the time he signs off, sarcastically calling himself a “sartorial gear whore“, one wonders how the hell Royce Da 5’9″ (the rapping half of Prhyme) is gonna follow it up. Black Thought is showing us how to rap here, from changing cadences on the fly, to the presence in his voice, to of course, his infallible pen game. Class is in session.
2. Chance the Rapper on Busta Rhymes’ “Hello”
Chance the Rapper’s verse on Action Bronson’s “Baby Blue” is the most talked about of his 2015 features, but the Chicagoan’s work on Busta Rhymes’ latest mixtape is easily the most captivating. Over a bare-bones beat interpolating the Luniz’ classic “I Got 5 On It” instrumental, the young spitter delivers anti-drug messages without coming off pretentious, saying “How we in the game and they ain’t put a chain on ‘em? Cleaner than that thang and my Sprite don’t got a stain on it/ lil’ Xan fucked the Chance up…”. Chance’s nuanced wordplay is clever, and it doesn’t sound like a D.A.R.E. commercial; rather an honest admission of past mistakes.
The wise-beyond-his-years emcee also calls out fraudulent rappers who are not what they claim to be with this nugget of brutal honesty: “offices and mansions with amenities, and runneth over pools and Infinities, award shows and house wives and games shows and Hennessy/ it’s different from the energy I see being in your vicinity/ mistaken identity, you behaving differently“.
Chance shouts out his host Busta twice, calling his flow “fast like Twista mixed with Bust” and then apologizing to the Flipmode Squad leader for how long he goes off on the track, gushing “shout out to Bust, I know this a long ass verse“. Chance follows up the apology by saying he’s “trying to take this rap shit global/ put my music in the museum, put my bars in Barnes and Noble“. And honestly, as long as he keeps churning out verses like this one, I certainly wouldn’t mind picking up a book full of Chance the Rapper’s raps one day.
1. Kendrick Lamar on Dr. Dre’s “Deep Water”
While I enjoyed everything I heard from Kendrick this past year, it was the verses the TDE general delivered on Dr. Dre’s Compton that hit the hardest. His features on “Genocide” and “Darkside/Gone” are both bar-for-bar some of the best on the album, but it is his verse on the murky “Deep Water” that truly floored me. The song’s title is a clear metaphor for the album’s namesake, a crime-ridden city full of proverbial “sharks” just waiting for their next victim.
He comes out the gate declaring “motherfucker, know I started from the bottom” (a possible dig at Drake?), and surviving there is damn near as tough as surviving on the pitch-black ocean floor. It is Kendrick’s word choice and imagery here that sets his bars apart from run-of-the-mill street life tales we hear all too often; he even turns spelling the name of his city into wordplay, calling himself “a C-O-M-P-T-O-innovator, energizer“, delivering each syllable with a frantic, syncopated flow similar to the machine guns he mimics in his adlibs.
The Cali native recalls the spirit of his 2012 good kid, m.A.A.d city album by confessing “once upon a time, I shot a nigga on accident/ I tried to kill him, but I guess I needed more practicin’/ that’s when I realized banging wasn’t for everybody/ switch it up before my enemy or the sheriff got me“. But despite making this realization, Lamar does not let the verse lose its menacing vibe, closing it by bringing the concept of the song full-circle as he says “they liable to bury him, they nominated six to carry him/ they worry him to death, but he’s no vegetarian/ the beef is on his breath, inheriting the drama better than a great white/ nigga, this is life in my aquarium!“.
Comparing Compton to an aquarium rather than an ocean or sea is a testament to Kendrick’s understated brilliance as a writer; an aquarium keeps sea creatures in captivity in order for humans to watch them through safe glass tanks, much like how outsiders watch violent areas such as the California ghetto through the safe glass screens of our television sets. After his verse, the hook goes by one last time before Anderson .Paak brings it home by imitating a young man literally drowning in the deep, murky waters of his environment. While “Deep Water” is certainly a bleak moment on the album, the quality of Kendrick’s verse on it is a beacon of hope for the livelihood of craftsmanship in lyrics on the mainstream hip-hop landscape.