The Top 10 Rappers of the 1990s

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Hip-hop's romance with the 90s is well documented. It's always referenced as the Golden Age of rap. Part of the nostalgic appeal of 90s rap was the talent pool and originality of 90s rappers. 90s rappers weren't necessarily better than their predecessors or more talented than contemporary rappers, but seized the moment and created a batch of records that are still held up as the model of excellence. 90s rappers expressed themselves in diverse ways and they were deeply connected to their audience.

On the west coast, the likes of Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, and 2Pac had the streets on lock. The east coast had Nas, Biggie and Jay Z. The 90s also produced great groups like Beastie Boys, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan. But this list will focus on solo rappers who dominated in the 90s.

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Snoop Dogg

Snoop Dogg in 1988

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Name a rapper who was cooler than Snoop Doggy Dogg in the 1990s. Snoop is widely adored today, but he was truly adored in the 90s. Snoop started his run with 1993's Doggystyle, an essential hip-hop album masterminded by Dr. Dre and executed to perfection by Snoop Dogg.

Following the death of 2Pac, Snoop wanted no parts of Suge Knight's Death Row drama. He defected to Master P's No Limit Records. Few will bat a lash if a west coast MC signed to a southern rap label today, but this was a risky move in the 90s. Although none of his No Limit Records albums matched the quality and popularity of ​Doggystyle, Snoop was still the Doggfather to anyone who enjoyed hip-hop music in the 1990s.​

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Common is one of the most important rappers making music today. His run dates back to the 90s when he was still a young 22-year-old who rapped under the alias Common Sense. Common positioned himself as a street poet, rapping about hood despair on early tracks. Later, in 1996, he battled the fierce and feared Ice Cube and emerged unscathed.

A master storyteller, Common took on risky subjects like love and relationships in the face of hip-hop masculinity. Common's 90s body of work, from the stellar Resurrection to the string of hits, helped make his case as one of the greatest rappers of all time, never mind the 90s.

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Busta Rhymes

Busta Rhymes
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Before the Cash Money deal that went nowhere, before the Swagger Wagon commercial, before Chris Brown helped reintroduce him to a new generation of fans, Busta Rhymes was already a star. 

Busta Bus recorded a lot of great music in the 90s: his hit singles, "Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check" and "Dangerous" among them; his career-defining album, When Disaster Strikes; and his Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling follow-up E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front. Busta also established a reputation for creative music videos via cult classics like "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See" and "Dangerous." Despite his enviable resume, Busta Rhymes has never won a Grammy.

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Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill

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Before the glitz and glamour of the Grammys, Lauryn Hill was already a proven lyricist. As a prominent member of the Fugees, L' Boogie established herself as the group's most compelling storyteller, rapper, and singer. Hill seamlessly combined jaw-dropping lyricism with social commentary, a key ingredient in the success of the 1996 Fugees album, The Score.

In 1998, Hill went solo with her own Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. She delivered the best fusion of hip-hop and R&B hip-hop has witnessed in a long time. Her songwriting flourished from tune to tune, whether grappling with spirituality ("Final Hour," "Forgive Them, Father") or stroking sexuality without exploiting it ("Nothing Even Matters"). The Miseducation won five Grammy awards (out of a historic 10) and earned an induction to the National Recording Registry.

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Jay Z

JayZ 90s
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Hip-hop is obsessed with the concept of royalty. And Jay Z has consistently fueled the debate about his regal status. In that sense, you could make a very strong case for the longest active reign in hip-hop. Jay's relevancy has never waned, not even when he hung up his retirement boots after The Black Album. Jay Z started his remarkable run with the 1996 release of Reasonable Doubt

Like a hoop star entering the game in the second half, Jay brought a different kind of energy to the game. His blueprint was mafioso rap, but not just any mafioso rap. His version had a soul. He was a tough guy who bled sometimes. On one hand, Jay flashed his Lexus; on the other, he acknowledged his "Regrets." By the end of the decade, Jay had come into his own as a pop star. His hustler gruff now polished to the utmost luster, the hits kept the cash register ringing. 

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Ice Cube

Ice Cube

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Ice Cube walked away from N.W.A., a revolutionary hip-hop group, only to kick off one of the most remarkable solo careers of the 90s. Cube was N.W.A.'s most competent MC and it was evident on his solo debut, 1990's Amerikkka's Most Wanted. With The Bomb Squad supplying the burly beats, Cube attacked every song with what he dubbed "street knowledge."

Death Certificate, which arrived a year later, was more focused and structured with two sides labeled "Death" and "Life." It reached No. 2 on the BIllboard 200 despite receiving a reported $18,000 promotional budget. Cube never took his foot off the pedal, releasing The Predator in 1992. Three solo albums and a million protests later, Cube finally announced that "It Was a Good Day" — a hood classic that celebrates the rare day of peace in the streets and still puts smiles on faces today. 

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Scarface Brad Jordan

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Scarface is a rapper's rapper. The Houston legend was at his busiest in the 1990s, releasing a total of 10 albums (five with the Geto Boys) in the 90s. His standout solo LP, 1995's The Diary, was a masterclass on storytelling. Face didn't simply put you on the scene of his tales, he made you smell the skunk and taste the thick fog.

With a voice that's deep and brawny, he tackled the quest for survival in a dog-eat-dog world alongside topics that were never meant for mass consumption: murder, suicidal thoughts, and nihilistic leanings, among them. Still, Face went on to shift units, chart on the Billboard Hot 100, and influence a generation of MCs.

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Nas stepped off the block with Illmatic, an album that has been (justifiably) lavished with every superlative in the dictionary. His 1996 follow-up, It Was Written, was solid but underappreciated because it lacked Illmatic's focus and pace. Still, it became Nas' most commercially successful album and produced several standout cuts, including the beef-baiting "The Message" and the Lauryn Hill-blessed summer anthem, "If I Ruled the World."

Nas spent the next three years establishing his crew (The Firm) and chasing elusive commercial success. Without a single pop bone in his body, Nas sold millions of records with a few gold and platinum plaques along the way. He also maintained a dedicated fan base throughout the 90s. Songs like "I Gave You Power," "Nas Is Like...," and the "NY State of Mind" trilogy proved Nas was in playing in a league of one.

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The Notorious B.I.G.

Notorious Big
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If ​the Notorious B.I.G. isn't the best rapper of the 90s, he's the closest one. He was an unlikely success story. When he released his debut, Ready to Die, in the fall of 1994, he was under immense pressure. Biggie was juggling rap and hustle in a fight to ensure a stable future for his family. And six months earlier, another New York newcomer named Nas had just dropped a brilliant album that had everyone talking: Illmatic. Biggie knew he had to deliver a stellar album if he wanted to enter the conversation.

Remarkably, Biggie stayed focused enough to put together a sprawling masterpiece. Then, he went a step further. Along with Puff Daddy, Biggie perfected the one-part rap, one-part R&B formula that is still widely utilized today. He took some time off to put his crew on, making sure that Junior M.A.F.I.A. and its leading lady Lil Kim could enter the Promised Land with him. When he returned for his second go-round, Biggie pushed the envelope again: he recorded a double album. Life After Death, Biggie's final studio album, was released posthumously following his murder on March 9, 1997.

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Tupac Shakur

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Pound for pound, 2Pac is the most influential rapper in history. But even more important than that, he's a remarkable storyteller. Pac dominated the 90s with his conflicted versions of everyday hood tales: gang wars, preggo teens, drug addiction and everything else that mattered to him.

Shakur not only influenced music, he also shaped hip-hop fashion. In the 90s, it was common to see 'Pac fans adorned with bandanas, an emblem of his "thug life" persona. His death was mourned like that of a global statesman. His work is celebrated with gusto throughout the world. his most memorable tunes live to tell the story of a man whose potential was cut short by death.